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'Swarm' explores toxic fandom through the eyes of a serial killer

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

If you haven't seen "Swarm" on Amazon Prime yet, let me just catch you up. The story centers on Dre. She's a young Black woman played by Dominique Fishback.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SWARM")

DOMINIQUE FISHBACK: (As Dre) Who's your favorite artist?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Ah, I don't know. I mean, that new Kodi Blaze album's all right, right?

FISHBACK: (As Dre) Kodi Blaze has a total of one Grammy. Ni'Jah has 26.

SUMMERS: And Dre is a serial killer. From the beginning of the series, she comes off as a little strange, uncomfortable in social situations, a little awkward. But she's got a warm and loving, if complicated, relationship with her sister, Marissa, and the two share this absolute devotion to a pop star named Ni'Jah.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SWARM")

FISHBACK: (As Dre) She is not like everybody else. She knows what we're thinking, and she gives it a name. She's a goddess.

SUMMERS: There's a big turn in episode 1. Marissa dies, and that is it for Dre. She takes off on this violent road trip - a killing spree twisted up with her Ni'Jah fandom that runs throughout the series.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SWARM")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) You got a spare in the trunk?

KARINA CHERY: (As Paris) She should.

FISHBACK: (As Dre) No. Damn.

X MAYO: (As Cheeks) You got a dead body in there or something?

FISHBACK: (As Dre, maniacal laughter).

SUMMERS: So I recently started watching the show. And when I texted a couple of my friends to ask them if they were watching it too, well, it blew up my whole group chat, and things got really messy. So we brought together Pop Culture Happy Hour host Aisha Harris and Madeline Leung Coleman from New York Magazine to dig into all of it. And I just want to warn everybody - there may be a couple spoilers ahead. Aisha and Madeline, welcome.

MADELINE LEUNG COLEMAN: Great to be here.

AISHA HARRIS, BYLINE: Hey. Thanks for having me.

SUMMERS: So this show does something that we haven't really seen before. It centers a Black woman as a serial killer. And Aisha, I want to start with you here. Can you just put the show into some pop culture context for us?

HARRIS: Yeah, so we're at a period where viewers are very drawn to serial killers on-screen. So you have something like the Netflix shows "You" and "Dahmer." And then we also have a lot of movies and TV shows that are sort of working through our social media era - our social media language and how we respond to each other. And one of the things that really came up for me while I was watching this show was a movie from a few years ago called "Ingrid Goes West," and it's stars Aubrey Plaza and Elizabeth Olsen. And it's about a woman who becomes obsessed with an influencer to the point where she, like, basically kind of, like, begins stalking her and ingratiates herself into this influencer's life. And I feel like there's a lot going on here that draws - in "Swarm" that draws from both of those resources, but it puts it in the body of a Black woman, which is not something we usually see.

SUMMERS: Donald Glover and Janine Nabers are behind the series. And Madeline, I know that you recently interviewed Glover about the series and about what it was like to work with Dominique Fishback, who plays Dre. And there is a thing that came up in your conversation with him that has been flying all over the internet - it's the guidance that Glover says he gave Fishback about how to play Dre - namely to think of her, quote, "more like an animal and less like a person." So Madeline, I'm hoping you can just put that into some context for us. Tell us a little bit more about your conversation with him and kind of his view on this character in the show.

LEUNG COLEMAN: So I spoke to Donald because I was writing a profile of Dominique, and she told me something surprising, which was apparently both Janine and Donald gave her pretty light advice about how to play Dre. The script was fairly minimal for the pilot when she first got it, and she was feeling a little lost about how to locate the humanity of this character and understand her motivations. So when she asked Donald how she should play Dre and how she should think about her, Donald said, think of her more like an animal and less like a person, by which he meant that she didn't need to try to locate the humanity in the character. She just needed to sort of play her in kind of a raw and brutal way, and that, in fact, he didn't want to tell her too much backstory. You could argue that this is unnecessarily confusing for an actor, which some people have, or you could argue that this is further evidence of how Donald thinks about the Black women he works with, which some people assumed online meant that he didn't think of them as having full humanity.

HARRIS: Well, I obviously wasn't in on this conversation, but I do think it does show up in some ways in the show. For me, Dominique's character does not really become fully alive or really just someone we can kind of decipher and understand to a point until midway through the series, with no sort of understanding of, like, what drove her to this or even just, like, who she is as a human. And so I think that the fact that Dominique was able to still make a compelling character out of it should, it sounds like, be attributed completely to her and not to whatever Donald Glover was telling her.

SUMMERS: So Madeline, I know that you talked to Janine Nabers, but your colleague and our former colleague, Sam Sanders, who now hosts the culture podcast "Into It" for Vulture - he also interviewed Janine Nabers. And one of the things that she told Sam that I cannot stop thinking about is the idea that this show is a love letter to Black women and that we should see a version of Black femininity that we haven't seen elsewhere yet. And I just have to say, just for me as, like, a viewer - not as a public radio host, but a Black woman watching this show - that wasn't quite what I took away from it. So I just want to ask y'all what you thought about that.

HARRIS: Well, I definitely think that the way Black women fan and stan is something that is overlooked often in popular culture. And I do think that what this show is bringing is a different perspective of what that looks like and how our fandom is connected in a way - or can be connected in a way - to our identity as Black women or as Black queer people or whatever.

What is so interesting about it is the fact that they use Beyonce as sort of a stand-in - the Ni'Jah character is sort of a Beyonce-like figure. And I think we're at this moment now where love for Beyonce is at this all-time high, but there's still this sense that she's not getting the full respect that she deserves. And so when we're seeing Dre asking people - you know, who's your favorite artist? - and then, like, going off to list, like, all of Ni'Jah's accomplishments - she has this many Grammys, you know, that sort of thing - I think it really speaks to the way that Black women especially have tried to support other Black women artists and really, really go hard for them in the face of them feeling as though they are not getting enough due.

SUMMERS: Madeline, what about you? What do you think about the show's kind of interpretation on stan culture?

LEUNG COLEMAN: I think that the show starts out seeming like it's about stan culture, but ultimately becomes about something very different. I mean, you can see that, obviously, Dre is extremely obsessed with Ni'Jah and that she fixates on her, and she starts to believe that she needs to protect Ni'Jah. But I think that, ultimately, it makes it pretty clear that that's ultimately a stand-in for how she feels she failed to protect someone else who she really cared about.

In terms of how it talks about Black women, I think the argument that Janine is trying to make about that - and that maybe Donald might make as well - is that I think the love letter that they're intending here is the confidence to show a kind of character who hasn't been shown before and the idea that you could show a whole range of Black women within this series, all with, like, very different kinds of personalities and all with kind of different relationships to morality, and that enjoying that spectrum is actually a sign of respect and a sign of love. And you could disagree with that, but I think that is what they mean by that.

SUMMERS: That's Madeline Leung Coleman. She's an editor at New York Magazine who recently profiled Dominique Fishback. We were also joined by Aisha Harris of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour. Thanks to both of you.

HARRIS: Thank you.

LEUNG COLEMAN: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOMETHING LIKE THAT (FEAT. CHILDISH GAMBINO)")

KIRBY: (As Ni'Jah, singing) I got the beat. I got the heat. I got the fire. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Aisha Harris
Aisha Harris is a host of Pop Culture Happy Hour.
Madeline Leung