In this installment of 3 Reasons to Watch, we’re touting stellar Apple TV+ basketball drama Swagger, produced by Kevin Durant and creatively shepherded by Reggie Rock Bythewood.
The show, about a high school phenom assailed by personal and professional pressures, just returned for its second season. And like its heroes, Swagger shows no signs of slacking now that the game is getting tougher. Here’s why you should give it a shot.
3 Reasons to Watch: Swagger on Apple TV+
In Swagger, Jace Carson (played by Isaiah R. Hill) is going to be the next big thing. The next Lebron. The next Kobe. Or the next Michael Jordan. Of course, not everyone who knows it is in much of a position to do anything about it, Jace included.
His mother (Shinelle Azoroh), his coach (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), his teammates — Nick (Jason Rivera), Drew (James Bingham), Phil (Solomon Irama), Royale (Ozie Nzeribe) and Musa (Caleel Harris) — and his girlfriend Crystal (Quvenzhané Wallis) all know Jace is a star. But if he can’t get over himself and deal with life in the Baltimore projects, he’ll never get a chance to show it. And of course, unless he shows up for all of them, he’ll lose the support of the people he loves most in the world.
Here’s why it’s worth checking out Swagger in time as its second season kicks off.
1. Low-key delivery, high-key drama
Reggie Rock Bythewood and his fellow Swagger writers and directors decided that the best way to make their points about Jace and his hardscrabble life is to let the drama unfold in the most natural way possible. The idea of having your future lined up when you’re 15 years old is already plenty stressful, without the show artificially ratcheting up the tension.
Swagger films its conversations with an eye for the actor’s performances, and ensures that the pace is never so rushed that good moments can’t breathe. The show’s basketball games are its most kinetic elements, but its hard conversations are its most thrilling. From Jace learning that Crystal is being abused, to the aftermath of a run-in with the police (breathtakingly tense itself), this is a show that looks the difficult questions about life in America dead in the eyes.
2. A deep bench
Swagger wouldn’t work nearly as well without a cast up to the task of imbuing the scenes of athletic prowess with authenticity and the scenes of narrative heavy lifting with real gravitas. In leads Isaiah Hill and O’Shea Jackson Jr., the show has a solid anchor, but its supporting cast doesn’t slouch, either.
Hill and Jackson have to bring out the pride and hidden sensitivity of these two men, one starting his life and the other smarting from a lifetime of professional scorn, and they come to realize how much they need each other. The show’s stakes frequently seem larger than just the outcome of basketball games because of the great work these two do.
Also, it’s not easy to play someone who hides their inner decency behind bluster. But one of Swagger’s great pleasures is seeing Jace and Ike warm to each other and start asking for help. A host of incredible co-stars (from the dependably great Orlando Jones, Vinessa Shaw and Wallis to relative unknowns like Sean Baker, Irama and Jordan Rice) keeps every interaction tense, sharp, emotional — or all three.
3. They got game
Of course, without a sense of how and why basketball is so exciting to watch, the show wouldn’t be a terribly successful example of the form, would it? Bythewood and the rest of the crack directing team find ways to showcase the talent of their young cast on the court.
A good deal of spectator sports have a necessary sameness to them. But Swagger shows you how intense it can feel to find yourself trapped between five players in the middle of a game. The choreography and blocking is always primed to highlight the confusion and fast pace of the games while never stranding you.
Swagger wants you to be impressed by the movement of its players. And that means being able to read every move and play clearly. This is a talented group of actors when they’re in the paint, and the crew makes sure we know that — and that we want team Swagger to win just as badly as they do.
Watch Swagger on Apple TV+
You can watch the entire first season of Swagger now on Apple TV+. New episodes of season two arrive each 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 and But God Made Him A Poet: Watching John Ford in the 21st Century, 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.