NBA star Kevin Durant turned his experiences as a young basketball player into Swagger, Apple TV+’s highly promising sports drama. The series, which premieres Friday on Apple’s streaming service, follows the trajectory of a rising basketball star as he becomes a legend with help from his community.
Powered by strong acting, kinetic directing and a compelling storyline about life both on the court and off, Swagger scores from the jump. It looks like one of Apple TV+’s strongest series to date.
Baltimore teenager Jace Carson (played by Isaiah R. Hill) is gonna be the next big thing in basketball. He practices constantly, and his workout regimen has become a local legend because his mom (Shinelle Azoroh) has been posting them to Instagram.
He’s so big, in fact, that when some cops try to arrest him because he’s out too late, they let him go because they’ve seen his videos. The trouble is he knows how good he is. His confrontational attitude and arrogance have made him persona non grata on local teams. He’s too hotheaded. And his mom supports him in it because she wants the best for him. But that means the only team left is the one coached by Ike Edwards (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), a one-time youth ball superstar who never made the big time.
Of course, everyone faces troubles beyond their athletic careers. Ike is trying to provide for his family but his team isn’t a moneymaker. (He works in a home goods store to make ends meet.) His temper gets him in serious trouble.
Troubles off the court
Jace, too, has issues. His sister (Jordan Rice) is on the hunt for their absent father, who left them many years ago. As much as Jace wants to look beyond his depressing Maryland home to greater things and bigger dreams, he battles self-confidence problems that others easily exploit. He doesn’t want to be remembered as a statistic. But if he can’t focus, he might not have a choice.
He loses a big game when a scout comes looking for him and his confidence takes a hit. He needs to win not just to get himself to the big leagues but to prove to himself he’s better than how he sometimes feels inside. Ike obviously sees himself in Jace, and the intersecting of their paths provides a chance for him to reflect on himself.
He’s fed up with a lot about the junior leagues — the way the other coaches treat their kids, the way the economics of the game are handled. He’s starting to question his role in the game just as Jace questions himself. Ike gets a new opportunity when a fellow league coach (Tessa Ferrer) suggests they merge their organizations. She has a benefactor, the father (Miles Mussenden) of one of her lesser players (Ozie Nzeribe), who can help keep the team afloat. There are compromises aplenty but if they can pull this off, there’s no telling where it might lead.
Everything I want could be slippin’ away
Kevin Durant’s experiences may inform the very excellent Swagger but this is fully the Reggie Rock Bythewood show. Bythewood is a writer, producer and director with a very impressive track record. He produced his wife Gina Prince-Bythewood‘s excellent movie Beyond the Lights. And the two of them created Shots Fired for Fox a few years back. (She serves as a consulting producer on Swagger. Given that she directed Love & Basketball back in the day, that’s good for everyone involved.)
Reggie Rock Bythewood’s earthy dramatic sensibility is on display in his writing and direction. He directs the Swagger pilot, choreographing the games with a hyperactive eye that captures the ability of his players and makes basketball as exciting to watch as it is to play.
The real Baltimore
The Bythewoods’ project, broadly speaking, has been to shine a light on elements of American life that are frequently sensationalized. Just look at the way they paint the Baltimore neighborhoods where Swagger takes place. It’s still got its problems (drugs, police brutality). But this is a place worth focusing on because the people who live there are not who the media makes them out to be.
(I’d recommend reading and following Brandon Soderbergh for a continuing and comprehensive look at how crime is framed in Baltimore, a city that people want to believe is frozen in its very well-covered history of corruption and urban crime.)
Bythewood wants to show the Baltimore that doesn’t make headlines, a place where good people are just trying to survive in a city completely forgotten by the people with the power and money to help it. That’s why Jace and Ike are so committed to being the best: Baltimore has been abandoned, and they want to bring their people up with them.
Swagger like us
Swagger makes its political points with shots of street corners or vignettes involving cops, but they’re texture as often as text. This is first and foremost a show about the way people talk to each other when they’re in play, practice, and in the equally high stakes lives they lead normally. The games are all excellently handled by the show’s directors. (Bythewood’s the standout — it feels like he’s been itching to film basketball games — but directors Alex Hall and Rachel Leiterman don’t slouch either.)
More importantly, the other stuff proves at least as compelling as the basketball action. Ike’s family life, Jace’s personal demons, his teammates and their chemistry, Jace’s relationship with his friend Crystal (Quvenzhané Wallis), team bruiser Phil (Solomon Irama)’s domestic troubles … all of that is magnificently drawn and stupendously acted. This isn’t always a hangout show. But when Swagger lets itself become one, it seems unstoppable.
A baller cast
The whole Swagger cast is charismatic as hell, but obviously the show didn’t idly put its main story in the hands of Jackson and Hill. Jackson’s done consistently good work as a character actor. Seeing him become the focus here is gratifying. He acts much older than his 30 years. His fatigue and everyday disappointments weigh on him so much they become as visible as the apron he wears at his job.
He makes Ike distinct in every way from his previous characters. At times, Jackson seems so committed to Ike’s personal drama you forget you’re watching the incredibly famous son of one of the most famous rappers of all time (which I bring up only because Ike constantly ribs his young team about their taste in hip-hop).
Hill proves similarly incredible. He’s got screen presence to spare, but he’s also the real deal with a basketball in his hand. As great as he is handling the teen emotions and self-consciousness Jace experiences, he’s truly fantastic acting out the gameplay. He sizzles during these sequences, his physicality and athleticism drawing your attention and never releasing it.
Swagger makes one of the strongest debuts of any Apple TV+ show this season, and I look forward to seeing where it goes next.
Watch Swagger on Apple TV+
The first three episodes of Swagger land on Apple TV+ on October 29. New episodes arrive every Friday.
Watch on: Apple TV+
Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the author of Cinemaphagy: On the Psychedelic Classical Form of Tobe Hooper, the director of 25 feature films, and the director and editor of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.