Swagger gets serious with drama on and off the court [Apple TV+ review]


Swagger review: Crystal (played by Quvenzhané Wallis) has a rough week on and off the court.
Crystal (played by Quvenzhané Wallis) hits a rough patch in this week's episode.
Photo: Apple TV+

This week on Swagger, Apple TV+’s new drama based on NBA star Kevin Durant’s youth, teen basketball stars Jace and Crystal find themselves between a rock and a hard place. He’s got the weight of the world on his shoulders in a good way, she in the worst way, and they need each other at a time when they can’t hear each other.

The episode, titled “We Good,” is all about learning to listen and to trust the people around you who actually have your best interests at heart. But it’s also about learning that your own problems need to be able to be put on ice when other people are in need.

Swagger review: Episode 4, ‘We Good?’

Jace (played by Isaiah R. Hill) and Crystal (Quvenzhané Wallis) are still on the outs. The two teen players followed very different trajectories the last few weeks. Jace became a neighborhood cause célèbre (more than usual, considering how high his profile already was) when he went head to head with his rival, Nick Mendez (Jason Rivera). Jace was scouted by Lester Davis (Deric Augustine), a former teammate of his coach Ike Edwards (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) who’s now rich and famous, and is closing in on a sneaker sponsorship courtesy of Gladiator shoes executive Alonzo (Tristan Mack Wilds).

Crystal, on the other hand, has had it … to put it mildly, a worse couple of days.

She’s been feeling a huge bout of impostor syndrome. She’s dealing with an injured leg, too, and her own coach (Al Mitchell) keeps touching her a little more than she’s comfortable with. Sometime it’s just icing and massaging her leg, or putting his arm around her after games. But the uneasy look on her face says more than his protestations that he’s just looking out for her.

She’s been trying for days to get Jace to listen to her because she doesn’t know who else to talk to. But he’s too wrapped up in his own rise to power to notice. And he’s too much of a guy to know how to get her to open up.

More problems off the court

Nick, incidentally, is about to become an even bigger problem for Jace. His coach (Marc Blucas) wants Nick’s mother (Misha Gonz-Cirkl) to sign over guardianship of Nick so he can make decisions on the kid’s behalf because she lives in Puerto Rico. He doesn’t want to have to run every team decision by her.

She immediately pulls Nick from the team and asks Ike and fellow coach Meg (Tessa Ferrer) if they’ll help her find another team and another living situation for Nick, so he can keep playing without her losing power of attorney over her son just because she doesn’t live nearby.

Ike and Meg approach Brett (Miles Mussenden), the rich father of one of their players. Ike doesn’t know until the meeting the extent to which Brett is underwriting the team. (Meg worked out the details back when she was coaching Brett’s son Royale (Ozie Nzeribe) on her old team but declined to fill Ike in on her “angel investor.”) Ike chafes and leaves the meeting.

Between that and another coach (played by Felicia “Snoop” Pearson!!!) asking for a meetup with Lester Davis, Ike’s feeling less in control than ever. He balks at the idea of hooking anyone up with Lester, having torpedoed their relationship by refusing to let Lester sponsor the team and by refusing to apologize for their issues when they were teenagers.

Lester continues his underhanded quest to undermine Ike by telling Jace that Ike turned Lester down, trying to ask the young player to get his coach to reconsider the offer. This is not Ike’s day.

I insist

The relationship between Jace and Crystal is one of Swagger’s strongest elements. Jace’s rapidly inflating ego is making him hard to root for (the show knows this, of course). And the sadness just dripping off Crystal’s storyline (and Wallis’s performance) make the imbalance between the two teens stark indeed.

Jace was already not the world’s most generous friend — and he’s getting worse by the day. You want to know more about Crystal’s emotional inner life (certainly more than you want to see Jace hanging out with Lester). By withholding it, the show makes you more invested in what happens next.

It should be said that I wouldn’t say “no” to more of her on the show, but I know there’s a lot of storyline to cover here. Every week, Jace needs to be grounded by the people around him. This week, Jackie (Jordan Rice) comes to him with the idea of sending their missing birth father a letter and Jace realizes once more how selfish he can be. He opts to make her vegan brownies as an apology, a small step but an important one.

Crystal and the creepy coach

The stuff with Coach Warrick is heartbreaking. He calls Crystal into his office after a game, and though the walk she makes is short, it’s terrifying. Swagger giving time to her perspective is a heartening sign that the showrunners are interested in more than Jace’s journey, but also that they know how to play up the terror of being a young person in thrall to older people who are supposed to have your best interest at heart.

Jace is constantly being passed around by the adults in his life who all claim they want what’s best for him. Ike’s constant refrain that everyone is putting too much pressure on Jace falls on deaf ears. And it also discounts that Isaac does have his own plan for Jace. Even if it’s the most altruistic of all of them, his ego is nevertheless in play.

Crystal faces similar problems, just in a much worse way. She isn’t being recruited and told she’s the best (the only person who usually did that for her was the now-absent Jace). And on top of that, she’s getting inappropriate attention from a creep and can’t tell anyone. It’s tough to watch but it’s really well-handled.

The big game

Jace’s selfishness is also proving problematic on the court. His teammates hate that he spends all his time rubbing eblows with NBA stars. They also dislike that he abandons teamwork at crucial moments for his own game, to prove how good he is instead of helping everyone win together.

He finally gets his head together when point guard Musa (Caleel Harris) is fouled by Snoop’s team. (Incidentally, I know it’d be sacrilegious to make a show in Baltimore without throwing in some cast members from The Wire, but damn is it good to see Snoop.)

Jace finally realizes he cares more about Musa’s well-being than his own ego. The team finally starts passing, and they even find room to give Royale some time in the spotlight. (His dad gives him a hard time but the team doesn’t — this show gets into the lives of each of Jace’s teammates every episode, a great strategy.) They lose but they lose together.

Watch Swagger on Apple TV+

New episodes of Swagger land on Apple TV+ every Friday.

Rated: TV-14

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.


Daily round-ups or a weekly refresher, straight from Cult of Mac to your inbox.

  • The Weekender

    The week's best Apple news, reviews and how-tos from Cult of Mac, every Saturday morning. Our readers say: "Thank you guys for always posting cool stuff" -- Vaughn Nevins. "Very informative" -- Kenly Xavier.