Dominique Fishback plays the world’s biggest and most murderous Beyoncé super fan in “Swarm,” a blood-splattered pop culture provocation from co-creators Janine Nabers and Donald Glover. Her Houstonian character Dre is willing to max out credit cards for concert tickets, just as much as she’s ready to murder online trolls to defend the celebrity’s honor. It matters only for legal reasons that the singer Fishback’s Dre is obsessed with is actually referred to in this Prime Video limited series as Ni’jah, not Beyoncé. But the opening words before each episode, as abrasive as other things in this in-your-face limited series, say plenty: “This is not a work of fiction. Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events, is intentional.”
Nabers, Glover, and their team of ambitious writers have very few reservations about their references, and the series plays out like a funhouse mirror reflection of very real, however bizarre, trending topics of the recent past. Dre is a member of the type of rabid fan community that exists on any noteworthy social media platform and can be known for attacking dissenters, doxing them, and making their star’s squabbles their own. Of course, many fan bases are out there, but the explicit specificity of “Swarm” about Beyoncé’s fans makes it all the more biting. And the show’s irascible course of events becomes all the wilder when “Swarm” riffs on the “Who Bit Beyoncé?” scandal of 2018 or references the group’s violent disgust about Becky with the good hair.
“Swarm” sets the stage with a terrific pilot episode, in which the tone zig-zags from one uncomfortable moment to the next. At first, it’s watching Dre open a new credit card just so she can buy over-priced concert tickets; later on, it’s the haunting, terribly sad events involving her roommate, fellow Ni’jah superfan Marissa (Chloe Bailey). The show ends with its first act of head-crushing murder, established with vivid cinematography from Drew Daniels that makes “Swarm” even more impossible to look away from—a camera that slowly creeps and circles around a room. Much of the show will become about Dre navigating different living spaces, passing through the country like Henry in “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.” Dre’s love for Ni’jah makes everyone else’s life secondary; it makes killing make sense.
As the show jumps ahead months at a time with each episode, “Swarm” is anchored by a robust aesthetic made possible by shooting on film: the saturated colors make the spilled blood extra red, and the grit from film stock provides a texture perfect for Dre’s visceral acts. The series directors, Donald Glover, Adamma Ebo (“Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.”), Ibra Ake, and Stephen Glover, establish a sound idea of this grounded but bizarre tone, complemented by a rich soundscape. In the series’ sometimes intentionally campy fashion, it will play buzzing sounds when Dre is ramping up the next violent act. But the score by Michael Uzowuru is a greater addition to the soundscape, complementing bizarre scenes—one standout track at the end of an emotionally intense homecoming episode sounds like a melodic dial-tone.
The series has an incredible centerpiece with Fishback, who has always led with range and muted rage, from her debut performance in “Night Comes On” to “Judas and the Black Messiah.” Fishback makes this character more than just a fan; she reflects the culture. Her emotions, physicality, and her entire existence are steered by what someone says about Ni’jah. Fishback surprises you throughout the series with the increasing depth she takes with this character, a killer zealot who speaks with tears down her cheek about fantasies of hanging with Ni’jah as if they were real. The series’ satire is all the more heartbreaking and compulsively watchable because of Fishback’s dedication to every facet of Dre. And despite the disclaimer’s intent of culpability, she has the necessary empathy to soulfully portray the specific audience members “Swarm” is calling out.
“Swarm” is very selective about how much it divulges about Dre’s psychology, but those character details are almost extraneous (as in a later standalone episode that doesn’t quite justify itself). The series is also not precious when presenting mental health or obsession, and such flagrancy becomes a challenging but effective part of the show’s discomfort.
As an often-fascinating work about pop culture looking at itself, the series also features appearances from other stars who live in the reality of “Swarm,” making the show all the more valuable. One standout appearance comes from Billie Eilish, in her first significant on-screen acting role. As a pseudo cult leader that Fishback stumbles upon mid-season, Eilish proves able to harness her own megastar presence into a gentle but equally imposing force. It’s the controlled, confident stuff that turns musicians into movie stars, and we’ll remember where we saw it first.
“Swarm” is the kind of series that casts a spell even when it’s not fully working—its horror-comedy attempts at being funny are more effective with ironic developments or pitch-black bits of dialogue, like when someone compliments Dre by saying, “You should be a medical student, or a serial killer.” The hit-and-miss laughs it goes for more are mostly that of disbelief, that “Swarm” has unleashed another gruesome act often inspired by someone’s distaste for Ni’jah.
But it all returns to the fearless Fishback, who holds the absurdity and heart of this horror tale while echoing previous smiling psychos like Rupert Pupkin (“The King of Comedy”), Patrick Bateman (“American Psycho”), and Arthur Fleck (“Joker”). Fishback’s work channels the same way those characters have revealed the ids of their time period and left an unforgettable mark. Every pop culture movement creates its own killer. “Swarm” is just getting in formation.