Tuesday, April 4, 2023


I just finished watching Swarm, the new series on Prime co-created by Janine Nabors and Donald Glover. It's an alternately unsettling and funny take on toxic fandom, with Dominique Fishback playing a murderous superfan of a singer obviously a lot like Beyonce. And it has much of the dreamy yet lucid quality, the sudden shifts of tone, of Glover's Atlanta. I don't want to say too much more because it is the kind of show best appreciated knowing as little as possible going into it, with small and large surprises throughout each episode. It's seven episodes, each less than an hour, so you can zip through it fast, though I enjoyed watching it over 3 or 4 nights to let an episode or two sit a bit in my mind before going on to new ones.

It's strictly a coincidence of timing, but having recently wrapped up watching Poker Face, I found myself thinking, as I watched Swarm, of the Rian Johnson series. Do they have similarities? Yes, but at an odd angle.  Let's say they play like complete inverses of each other, with their approaches to the world stemming from the respective positions their main characters inhabit in it.

Poker Face, which I thoroughly enjoyed, is in large part an exercise in nostalgia, hearkening back of course to Columbo and other '70s TV detective shows, and Natasha Lyonne’s Charlie clearly has an affinity for certain aspects of the past, or at least to '70s movies, which she references frequently. Dominique Fishback's Dre, by contrast, lives entirely in the present and has nothing to be nostalgic about. I'd have to watch the series again, but I don't remember her making one pop culture reference to anything past, around, 5 years ago.  If she does, they are few.  Both characters, after a death, wind up hitting the road, going on odysseys, and each wind up in the course of their travels entering odd pockets of US life, little subworlds. Charlie solves a mystery at each spot she hits, a crime solver, righting a wrong, establishing balance to a milieu before moving on. Dre commits crime after crime, killing after killing, leaving disorder and even carnage in her wake.  With Charlie, charm is a key, her personality wins her friends and even allies wherever she goes. She catches the eye and grabs people's affections in every social setting she enters. Dre, as fearlessly played by Fishback, is that most easily disregarded of people, a Black woman, and she has a personality that does not win her friends or influence people.  She's out of place everywhere, a misfit, awkward, uncomfortable at times in her own skin and definitely a person who grates on others. The way Swarm as a whole has an abrasive quality, and doesn't shy away from this, is refreshing, as well as a reflection of its main character.  

It's amusing to compare how Charlie, on the run, does everything she can to stay off the grid, avoid cell phones and ways of being traced. Dre is a social media junkie, living and breathing through it, finding pleasure and pain and feelings of love and hatred through it, and to say that she values her phone highly is an understatement.  The phone she is using actually becomes a central driving plot force in a couple of later episodes, and what she will do to make sure she has it in working condition in order to accomplish something she considers important is hair-raising yet not all that exaggerated in this day and age. Who doesn't get antsy nowadays when separated from the phone umbilicus?

With Charlie, you get the sense that wherever she goes, she has a nod-up mentally (and not just because of her lie-detector ability).  People around her, whatever environment she is in, seem to feel that. Nobody need pity or rescue her. In Swarm, there's a recurring motif, not one that beats you over the head either, of white women apparently trying to help Dre because, in some way, they see her as needing assistance. But just how benign and truly well-meaning are these women who with their privilege can move through the world so easily? This is especially true in an episode where Dre winds up with a group of self-empowerment women, led by a calmly chilling Billie Eilish no less.  A great episode. Dre is the one Black woman in this semi-cult of well-to-do white women, and if only she goes along with them, they say with their smiles, her life could be so much better. It could be like their wonderful lives.  But that's presuming, naturally, that she's remotely interested in the same things they are...

As I mentioned, it's mainly a matter of timing that I thought a few times of Poker Face as I watched Swarm. But Swarm really does play like the anti-Poker Face, and I mean that, if I'm making any sense, in a good way.  Not that, I should add, Dominique Fishback's Dre is all that readable to outsiders. Early in the women's group episode, she gets pulled over by a cop in a small southern town.  The menace and suspense in this scene are palpable.  A traffic stop, a Black woman, a white cop, the South, but the scene goes in a direction you don't expect. There's also the irony that this cop is talking to a person on a cross-country killing spree, and he's concerned about where in town she'll sleep for the night. Can't have any migrants in his town, especially Black ones. Does he suspect that she might indeed be a serial killer?  Why would he?  Who would ever expect a short unassuming Black woman to be that?  Maybe Dre has the most effective poker face of all.

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