Swagger fires on all cylinders, painting a rich, relevant, and powerful portrait in one of the year’s best shows.
This review of Swagger Season 1 is spoiler-free.
Swagger isn’t just good – it’s good in a way that scarcely seems possible for a freshman season. It’s a richly drawn drama from creator Reggie Rock Bythewood, inspired at least in part by the real-life experiences of NBA superstar Kevin Durant, but it manages to sketch the world of elite youth basketball as one weirdly welcoming to all. There are plot points built around the politics of the sports programs in the Washington metropolitan area, but the drama comes in how a lot of the specificity is boiled away, leaving only a sedimentary layer of universal elements: The desire of a kid from an underprivileged community to prove he’s better than his circumstances; the love of a mother filling a void left by the absence of a father; the well-intentioned coach who tries to give to others what he lost for himself.
Swagger speaks to something fundamental about the human experience, about our purest desires to show the world who we are, however much the world – and some of the people in it – want to root us in place, to make a statistic of us. Its world is vivid, and its characters so sharply observed that they could only be molded in the impressions left by real people, on real lives. It’s a fine bit of work, and easily one of the best shows of the year.
Much of it is held in place by the gravity of O’Shea Jackson Jr. as “Icon” Edwards, a husky basketball coach who burned so bright he ignited his own pro career and now spends his time guiding the youth towards theirs. But his good intentions are stymied by poor funding for his program, a baby on the way, and a time-consuming job at a hardware store, not to mention rival coaches who are content to stamp out the drive in young players before they even get a chance to move through the gears. Ike seems like one of only a few truly worthwhile cogs in a machine designed to chew up and spit out promising young athletes. But one of them, 14-year-old phenom Jace Carson (Isaiah Hill), might be the turning point for him and his whole team. Jace believes he’s great, and that he’s going to make it, and if his local reputation is anything to go by, he’s right. But the same cutthroat culture that Ike has to navigate is as hostile to Jace as it is to him. He needs, of course, a mentor to get him through.
Jace already has a mentor in his mother, Jenna (Shinelle Azoroh), a comically no-nonsense single parent who tolerates precisely zero horseplay and has nothing but her son’s best interests at heart – at least partially because her son’s best interests are also hers, which adds an interesting contour to the character. Many others are like that here. Nobody is simplistic, and within the space of a single episode, I was deeply attached to the fates of several of them. On and off the court, the drama is rich and naturalistic, and the social issues feel topical without being preachy. Everything from systemic racism to police brutality to cyberbullying to sexual assault to the Coronavirus pandemic is tackled smartly and with sensitivity, weaving in and out of focus as the story dictates without losing sight of the sports drama’s core machinery. When it’s time to play, Swagger has all the technical acumen of so-called “Prestige TV” with none of the pretension. Every technique utilized behind the camera – behold the glorious moment in the premiere when Jace steps up to make a free throw – is purposeful, intended to enhance what the character is feeling rather than tell us in shorthand.
The entire show is like this. It puts its characters first and foremost and allows the drama and commentary to emerge organically from them. There’s never a sense that anyone is behaving in a certain way to make sure we arrive at a predetermined point. There’s a sense of truth at the core of Swagger that, one suspects, could only have been captured by input from someone who really did have all these pressures on their shoulders midway through puberty. Durant is listed as an executive producer, and I don’t have enough knowledge of him or the sport to speak to the show’s accuracy, but it certainly feels authentic, and that’s all that really matters.
But beyond that authenticity is an expert rhythm of build-up and payoff that you only find in the best television, and it’s hard not to think about Swagger in those terms. It’s brimming with heart, love, enthusiasm, and energy, the kind of deeply engaging television that you only get every once in a while. In such a churning, overpopulated landscape of streaming content, one can only hope that Swagger finds its audience.