by: Daniel D'Addario, Variety
Apple TV Plus’ greatest success so far has been “Ted Lasso,” a show about the power of teamwork and connection, with a group of athletes led by a somewhat unlikely coach seeking a bit of redemption.
Its newest drama has all those elements, remixed and transplanted into a new context. “Swagger” is inspired by the early life of NBA superstar Kevin Durant, who serves as executive producer along with Brian Grazer and showrunner Reggie Rock Bythewood. In this show — set in the very recent past — a future star (Isaiah Hill’s Jace) finds his way toward playing with a coach (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) with far more heart than any of his peers in the cutthroat world of teen ball. Jackson’s Ike, washed up and working at a home-repair superstore as he tries to figure out a way forward for his family, is unusually sensitive to the needs of players. He has no patience for the trash-talk, the destructive competitiveness, or the superstar-centric approach of the youth circuit.
Which makes him both a nicely-drawn character — well-played, too, by the gifted Jackson — and an ideal guide. His players have talent to burn but growing-up to do, on and off the court. (Ike’s assessment of Jace, the phenom in his midst, indicates both that he sees his potential and isn’t awed by his reputation: “Can’t shoot a three to save his life, treats defense like it’s some time to relax, and explosive as hell. Special.”) “Swagger,” intended for an audience that includes young people, is schematic, presenting lessons for its team of kids to figure out and conflicts for them to overcome. But crisp dialogue and winning performances, including by Quvenzhané Wallis as a young talent facing conflicts of her own with her overly insinuating coach help it maintain interest.
Durant, in press coverage, has cultivated a reputation as an unusually pensive and intense figure, and “Swagger” attempts to address not merely how a generational talent is fostered but how a person comes into consciousness. In transplanting a loose outline of his personal story to the near-present day, the series allows itself to comment on recent police violence, as in a sequence in which 14-year-old Jace is cuffed simply for taking out the trash, with cops claiming resemblance to a carjacker. Elsewhere, characters deal with the enforced absence of incarcerated parents or pressures from coaches who demand they be given guardianship rights.
“Swagger” is direct and clear when it comes to what it wants to communicate about the pressures facing its ensemble. It’s also fairly blunt about what will get them through: Unity and the sublimation of star talent to a greater endeavor. It’s a message we’ve heard before, but this show’s clarity of purpose suggest it’ll reach, and be a balm for, an audience of young sports fans seeking to know what, beyond talent, makes a Durant. The answer, “Swagger” suggests, is hard work, clear guidance, and an ability to see beyond oneself. For a show about a singular figure, its team spirit stands out.
“Swagger” premieres Friday, Oct. 29, on Apple TV Plus.
Costume Deisgner: Sandra Hernandez