Commotion·Group Chat

Donald Glover's Swarm takes fan fiction to a whole new level

Culture writers Kathleen Newman-Bremang, Jen Sookfong Lee and Kevin Fallon discuss: 1) Donald Glover's new show Swarm (and the new Childish Gambino music he released with it), 2) the season 3 premier of everyone's favourite feel-good show Ted Lasso, and 3) the surprise retirement of celebrity stylist Law Roach.

Kathleen Newman-Bremang, Jen Sookfong Lee and Kevin Fallon dissect the new show, plus the return of Ted Lasso

A still from Amazon Prime Video's Swarm.
A still from Amazon Prime Video's Swarm. (Warrick Page/Prime Video)

How far would you go to show your favourite celebrity how much you love them?

That question drives Swarm, the latest horror-thriller series from Amazon Prime. A thinly-veiled metaphor for Beyoncé's fans, colloquially known as The BeyHive, the project is generating buzz due in no small part to one of its co-creators, actor Donald Glover, who released new music for the show as his alter ego Childish Gambino.

Culture writers Kathleen Newman-Bremang, Jen Sookfong Lee and Kevin Fallon join host Elamin Abdelmahmoud to unpack the show, as well as the return of everyone's favourite feel-good show Ted Lasso, and the surprising retirement announcement from celebrity stylist Law Roach.

We've included some highlights below, edited for length and clarity. For the full discussion, listen and follow the Commotion with Elamin Abdelmahmoud podcast, on your favourite podcast player.

Swarm takes on the BeyHive

Elamin: One of my favorite things about my social media feeds is that [Kathleen], it's like you're the Arsenio Hall of red carpets. You just interview everybody Black on every red carpet. I love it, I am here for it. One of the people that you talked to is Janine Nabers, who co-created this new show. What did she say about Swarm?

Kathleen: What a reference. Haven't heard Arsenio Hall in a while.

Elamin: Yeah, that's you. That's you.

Kathleen: So, Janine really wanted to stress that this is not a work of fiction and these are very real stories — which, I think is a wild thing to say if you've seen the show. But she said she wants people who watch it to project whoever they want onto the pop star in the show. It is obviously based on Beyoncé, but you could project Taylor Swift in there if you wanted. 

Elamin: I do.

Kathleen: She said that that's what her and Donald Glover wanted — it's based on the BeyHive, but it's trying to capture this very specific moment in fandom and social media — and that they know it's going to be polarizing, but that that was their intention, obviously. One of the most interesting things for me that Janine said was specifically about Black girls and fandom, and why they wanted to explore that angle. She said that as a dark-skinned Black woman, she doesn't get to see a lot of representation in the world of entertainment, so when she does see herself in someone, she'll follow them to the end of the earth. Which I can relate to, and I do think that that encapsulates some of the fervor around Beyoncé and her fans. It's why it's such an intense connection, and that connection is really rife ground for this dark, obsessive thriller. Whether you agree with how far the show takes that obsession, that's up to you, but I think it's going to cause a lot of conversation, let's say.

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - MARCH 14: (L-R) Janine Nabers, Billie Eilish and Donald Glover attend the Swarm Red Carpet Premiere and Screening in Los Angeles at Lighthouse Artspace LA on March 14, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Tommaso Boddi/Getty Images for Prime Video)
Janine Nabers, Billie Eilish and Donald Glover attend the Swarm Red Carpet Premiere. (Tommaso Boddi/Getty Images for Prime Video)

Elamin: Jen, I'm so relieved you're on this panel because you literally wrote the book on this. Your book is called Superfan: How Pop Culture Broke My Heart. What is it, would you say, about fandom that is such rich terrain for something so dark like this? 

Jen: I think that fandom is one of those things that's just really universal. There's really not a person among us who isn't a fan of someone or something — even if it's a very secret Love is Blind obsession. But also I think there's already an obsessive element to fandom. We create stories about the celebrities in our heads, so it doesn't take much; it's only a couple of steps to imagine that this could go too far and that any of us, under the right circumstances, could begin to think that this sort of unrequited relationship is actually a reciprocal one. I think that's what is making Swarm like such a hot topic of discussion, because the best horror and thriller stories are when the horrific situation being presented to you could actually happen to you. So this could actually happen to Elamin with Taylor Swift. Just saying.

Elamin: Well, I sure hope not. Thank you, Jen. 

Jen: I'm joking, I'm joking.

Elamin: But you know what, though? The minute you watch the show, you go, "The number of degrees between me and this behavior … I don't know what that number is, but it's certainly not 100. It's probably like ten." And so you can sort of begin to see how fandom invites you further and further down this rabbit hole. When I see really intense fandoms, my first instinct is to go, "This worries me," but my second is to go, "Am I like this about anything?" And the answer is probably maybe.

Kevin: I don't know how I feel about the fact that three different people all said that they could understand, maybe, this descent into a murderous fan. Like people, come on! I hope there is more than ten steps between Elamin's Taylor Swift fandom and killing people

Elamin: Probably. I would hope so. We will never know, Kevin. That's something I intend to never find out.

Ted Lasso begins its goodbye arc

Elamin: Season three of Ted Lasso premiered on Wednesday. Kevin, I'm going to start with you on this one because you're a fan of Ted Lasso. What do you love about the show?

Kevin: I think back to when it premiered during the scariest part of the pandemic, and it was sort of this beacon of light when we were all so scared and everything seemed so traumatic. The thing that I liked about the show is Jason Sudeikis plays Ted Lasso, this guy who has a really positive worldview and who sees the best in people. The world that he is imagining, is not one that is far removed from the one that we live in; he's just making the choice every day to find the goodness in it, and he's asking for the people around him in his life to do the same thing. And, we see the way that things become better for people when they start looking for the good and looking for the light in things. I think that was just such a profound lesson to have, especially during that time. 

Episode 4. Nick Mohammed and Jason Sudeikis in "Ted Lasso," premiering March 15, 2023 on Apple TV+.
Nick Mohammed and Jason Sudeikis in season 3, episode 4 of Ted Lasso. ( Apple TV+)

What I like about the show as it has progressed is it's shown how that outlook and that worldview isn't delusional. It doesn't pretend that the darkness doesn't exist. It doesn't pretend that bad things don't happen in people's lives, and those things don't make you sad and angry and upset. It's just saying that while all that exists, we can still enjoy and recognize the good things that are happening, too. I found that to be just a really nice thing to be saying, especially in these last few years that have been very difficult for a lot of people.

Elamin: That word, "nice," comes up a lot when we're talking about Ted Lasso, and I think it's fair because the way that I would generally describe Ted Lasso is it's comedy for people who have been to therapy, you know? In the sense that once you realize that the problem is in the mirror and you need to face up to those problems, things become a little bit funnier, but in a slightly different way than, "The world is against me." 

I really like the way that show sort of takes on this tone of referencing Brené Brown, and talking about all the sort of inner demons that you need to face, and it does that so well. Kathleen, there is a shift in tone, though, and we should talk about that shift in tone because the show got a little bit less lighthearted in season two. We talked about Ted Lasso dealing with some past trauma, he had a couple of panic attacks in the show, and then one of the central characters, Nate, ended up becoming a villain right at the end of season two. What do you make of that change in tone?

Kathleen: I mean, I think there has to be some growth and depth for these characters, or the show wouldn't be as good as it is. I actually think the tone hasn't changed that much. It's still very earnest and how they are approaching Ted's daddy issues and Nate's evolution is still very Ted Lasso; you know everything is going to work out in the end, and you can't have light without darkness. They're really just positioning this darkness or these issues in response to the lightness that they're still trying to convey…. Ted's a bit sad, but he's still cloyingly upbeat. Nate's this villain you hate right now, but with every other character that you didn't like at first, like Jamie Tartt or even Rebecca, that didn't last very long. You know, Jamie went from this pompous ass to one of the sweetest characters on the show, and [Nate] is kind of doing that in reverse. And, I think that is part of the comfort of Ted Lasso. We know that Nate's going to come around. We know there's going to be dad jokes, and emotional revelations, and things that make you feel warm and fuzzy, even if they are predictable. 

Elamin: We do have a skeptic in our midst. Jen, this show is, you would say, not for you — at least that's how you described it, because you watched it for the first time for this panel. What did you find?

Jen: The whole football thing is not in my wheelhouse, but I did watch a few episodes and I thought it was charming. I totally am not here to poop on other people's comfort viewing because I watched Gilmore Girls, like, 16 times. But I also think Ted is a little bit too pure for me. I like protagonists who seem unlikable, and then it's like work for me to find something to like about them. That, to me, is really charming, which means I'm probably dead inside.

Is Law Roach actually leaving the fashion world behind?

Elamin: There's been another big story this week that I want to talk about, which is the surprising retirement announcement of the stylist, Law Roach. He's someone who's known for styling Zendaya and Ariana Grande. To describe it for people who don't necessarily know who Law Roach is, this is a little bit like a football player making it to the Super Bowl and then being like, "I'm done, my career is over. I'm going to walk away from all this." Jen, how would you describe Law Roach's style?

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MAY 06:  Zendaya  attends The 2019 Met Gala Celebrating Camp: Notes On Fashion - Arrivals at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 06, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by John Lamparski/Getty Images)
Zendaya attends The 2019 Met Gala Celebrating Camp: Notes On Fashion. (John Lamparski/Getty Images)

Jen: His approach to fashion is really never about the clothes…. I think his approach to fashion is always about how much storytelling he can pack into one red carpet walk, which is fascinating to see. I think about those times he's dressed Zendaya for the Met Gala, when she was dressed as Cinderella and Joan of Arc — like, he's trying to elicit emotions in us, the people who are watching it. He's trying to get us to tell a story about the thing and the person that he's presenting to us. And I think that those associations he makes with the styling is what made us care about him as a stylist, honestly.

Elamin: Kathleen, do you have any insight as to the place Law Roach has in the world of fashion? Because there are not a lot of black stylists at this level operating.

Kathleen: No, there aren't at all. He's made history as far as the accolades … there's really no one bigger than Law Roach right now. What he did with Zendaya, I would argue their collaboration on her fashion is more responsible for her transition out of Disney than Euphoria. But aside from Zendaya, he's transformed so many celebrities, and not just the Black ones. He's worked with Celine Dion, he styled Lindsay Lohan for her first press tour back in a few years, he just gave us this iconic look on Hunter Schafer at the Vanity Fair Oscar party a few days ago. He is the blueprint at this point. If you see a look on a celebrity that you love, you're basically saying, is that Law Roach? The fact that we know his name or even saying his name. There's a few other stylists that maybe at that level…. I think it says a lot about his significance.

BEVERLY HILLS, CALIFORNIA - MARCH 12: Hunter Schafer attends the 2023 Vanity Fair Oscar Party Hosted By Radhika Jones at Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts on March 12, 2023 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images for Vanity Fair)
Hunter Schafer attends the 2023 Vanity Fair Oscar Party. (Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images for Vanity Fair)

Elamin: Kevin, how would you describe the current moment in red carpets right now? 

Kevin: Well, it's interesting because as a pop culture fan and as a gay man, I love to "be gagged" by amazing red carpet looks, so I really enjoy when these celebrities are collaborating with someone as brilliant as Law Roach because they produce those moments that delight me, but I also miss the mess. I miss when the celebrities would dress themselves, and stylists weren't as pervasive as they are, and they would get on the red carpet and just look a hot mess. That, to me, was also part of the fun of red carpet culture. You know, there used to be best and worst dressed because people actually were badly dressed. Now it seems to be more like best dressed and less best dressed. The gowns that people are wearing are almost uniformly gorgeous and fit correctly. The nightmare fashion that I used to also crave as much as I craved those big moments, I think, is missing, and I miss them.

You can listen to the full discussion from today's show on CBC Listen or on our podcast, Commotion with Elamin Abdelmahmoud, available wherever you get your podcasts.


Amelia Eqbal is a digital associate producer, writer and photographer for Commotion with Elamin Abdelmahmoud and Q with Tom Power. Passionate about theatre, desserts, and all things pop culture, she can be found on Twitter @ameliaeqbal.