SXSW drama Swimming with Sharks has the bite of a 90s erotic thriller, and the sleek and stylish shine of David Fincher films such as Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. As a Roku original, I fear it may not draw a huge audience despite being loosely based on the 1994 classic of the same name starring Kevin Spacey. Running only six fast-paced episodes punctuated by constant twists and turns, Swimming with Sharks is incredibly easy to recommend. I would go so far as to say it is one of my favorite television shows I have seen thus far in 2022. Kiernan Shipka (Mad Men, Netflix’s The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina) and Diane Kruger (Inglourious Basterds, National Treasure) are incredible in their respective roles, and when the duo finally share scenes together, this viewer simply could not get enough.
Lou Simms (Shipka) wants to have it all, and in Hollywood, “the fastest way to the top is to work for someone who’s already there.” For Lou, this means seeking out the infamously difficult CEO of Fountain Pictures, Joyce Holt (Kruger). At the start of her internship with the company, Lou is forced to begin at the bottom of the social ladder, below both queer sex-obsessed assistant Travis (Thomas Dekker, The Secret Circle, Kaboom) and friendly co-assistant Alex (Ross Butler, 13 Reasons Why, Riverdale). On her first day alone, Lou makes a potentially vital friendship with the VP of production (and Joyce’s right-hand man!), Marty (Finn Jones, Game of Thrones, Iron Fist), who may also be a potential love interest.
Lou doesn’t just wish to work for Joyce, though—she wants to quite literally become her, and be loved by the woman. Lou is the type to want to sniff Joyce’s panties, but also so obsessed that she wants to help her thrive. Standing directly in Joyce’s way is the company’s sole owner, a disgusting man on his death bed who feels reminiscent of Harvey Weinstein. This despicable Redmond (Donald Sutherland, The Hunger Games, Fallen) is on oxygen, ugly both inside and out, and trying to maintain Fountain’s image as “the last great American studio run by Americans” by making sure not to leave Joyce in charge.
I personally love this type of filmmaking, channeling obsessive female energy in a fashion that makes for some supremely entertaining television. As the short season unfolds, further information unravels in regards to Lou’s true intentions and identity. Unlocking her past is the key to solving Lou’s motivations, and a sparing use of flashbacks reveal just that. The viewer does not have to wait long for answers either, as the entire show’s runtime combined is still shorter than the newest Batman film. The unhinged aura of classic performances like Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction and Rebecca De Mornay in The Hand That Rocks the Cradle shimmer over into Shipka’s awards-worthy depiction of Lou.
Swimming with Sharks is sexually charged and gleefully perverse, reveling in the sheer madness of the Hollywood system. Both females at the center are particularly fantastic, with Shipka emerging as the strongest character of the pack. At one point, Joyce says of Lou: “you’re a sick girl, you should be working for Blumhouse,” and the line is reflective of both the meta style of the script, and Lou’s determined but mentally unstable persona. Joyce is complicated and fascinating, with the effect of Lou’s love for her causing a sort of Stockholm syndrome on the viewer. Is Joyce really this untouchable boss bitch, or is it just an image Lou has created in her mind? Joyce longs to get pregnant above even her wildest career aspirations, but no matter how many times she tries with her husband Miles (Gerardo Celasco), they come up empty. This eventually becomes pivotal to the show’s endgame.
Though it may be a Roku production, Swimming with Sharks carries the sheen of prestige television. The beauty extends from the coldness of the Hollywood hills, to an opening credits sequence that perfectly epitomizes the show’s sinister, cutthroat tone. One would be mistaken in thinking all the action is reserved for the conclusion, as a big character death occurs only two episodes deep. For those willing to stick around to see how it ends, Swimming with Sharks proves ultimately to be a potent meditation on modern Hollywood culture.
Swimming with Sharks blackmailed viewers when it debuted at 2022’s SXSW Film Festival, and drops the entire season exclusively on The Roku Channel, Friday, April 15th.