The story of the promising young athlete working to achieve his dreams in the face of adversity is nothing new in the sports genre. With the exception of a few standout films, its fair to say that most of these stories typically follow the same structure and employ the same old tropes that you’ve seen time and time before. Apple’s new basketball drama, however, subverts our expectations and delivers a story that contains everything that makes sports dramas great such as compelling characters and emotional in-game action while never falling into the trap of becoming predictable. It also does a great job of taking ideas that have been explored in sports movies in the past and bringing them into modern day and showing how today’s high-pressure, 24/7 media cycle affects young athletes as well as tackling current, real-life issues facing us today. For the most part, ‘Swagger’ is a well-paced, compelling story that, despite the odd mis-step, offers much more depth and complex characters than your typical sports drama and features some of the best on-court basketball action ever to grace the screen.
Inspired by the real-life experiences of NBA superstar Kevin Durant, ‘Swagger’ explores the world of youth basketball and delves deep into the lives of the players, coaches and their families. The story focuses primarily on Jace Carson, one of the country’s top-ranked young players, who dreams of making it to the NBA. Basketball news outlets and sports media can’t stop talking about him and his highlights are a regular feature on social media. He is a future Kevin Durant or LeBron James in the making. He’s kept grounded, but encouraged by his mother and sister as he navigates the complicated and, at times, murky world of youth basketball. As great as Jace is, we’re always reminded that he is in fact a teenager. He’s easily taken in by the money, fast cars and the flash lifestyles of people who have made it to the big leagues before him. His social media stats are important to him, he is ultra-competitive and is determined to do whatever it takes to succeed for himself and his family.
Helping Jace realise his full potential is his mother Jenna - played brilliantly by Shinelle Azoroh, and his coach, Ike, played by O’Shea Jackson Jr. The dynamic between these two characters and how they affect Jace is the heart of the show. Jace’s mother, who has raised him and his sister on her own, only wants what’s best for her son and knows that she must do whatever is necessary to help him succeed. Coach Ike, also known as ‘Icon’, is a former high school basketball prodigy himself working multiple jobs to help his training program stay afloat. He realises how special a talent Jace is and tries to walk a fine line between focusing on this and also ensuring the success of the entire team. Watching Jace be influenced by both figures and how this shapes him as a person and a player throughout the series is great and some of the best moments in the show’s ten episodes comes when Jenna and Coach Ike are at loggerheads.
Isaiah Hill is great as Jace in his first major acting role and becomes more and more comfortable in the character as the season progresses. He’s more than just the likeable up and coming superstar and is, at times, a flawed and complex character who is angry at the world, competitive to a fault at times and struggling to resist the temptations that come with being a young future superstar. Hill does an excellent job of bringing these elements of Jace’s character to the forefront while still making you root for him to succeed when his caring side and leadership qualities take centre stage. Some of the pressures and temptations faced by Caron are things that have been explored in other sports dramas such as Spike Lee’s ‘He Got Game’. What ‘Swagger’ does differently is that is delves further into these storylines and highlights how the always-on nature of today’s media has put a pressure on young athletes that even the greatest sports stars of the 90s never had to endure.
O’Shea Jackson Jr is fantastic as Coach Ike and his character’s backstory is one of the most interesting in the show. Being a former, highly touted young player who didn’t quite make it, his parallels with Jace and their relationship are fascinating to watch develop. Ike is much more than just another hard-nosed, tough talking coach character and the show drops in flashes of his teenage years throughout and hints that there’s a lot more to his story than meets the eye. One of the first meetings between Jace and Ike at practice during the first episode is thrilling to watch as flashes of Ike’s younger self come to the surface and is a great set-up for what’s to come.
Rounding out the cast are Coach Ike’s colleagues Naim and Meg, played by Sean Baker and Tessa Ferrer. Much like Jace’s mother does for her son, Coaches Meg and Naim keep Ike grounded and help him navigate the business side of coaching the hottest young basketball talent in the country. In addition to this, we also have Jace’s friends and teammates and one potential rival young player, who Jace battles with for the attention of the sports media world. What I loved about the supporting characters is that none of them feel pointless or underdeveloped. Jace is the star of the show, but everyone else is given their time to shine and some of the season’s best moments come from these other characters. This show could have easily been another half hour sports show, much like other recent arrivals like ‘The Mighty Ducks’ and ‘Big Shot’ on Disney+, but the hour-long format really gives the large cast of characters ample time to develop and make the viewer really care about them. The team and their relationships with Jace and each other will regularly bring a smile to your face and make you laugh, despite the heavy nature of some storylines. There’s a lovely scene in particular between Jace and his long-time friend Crystal (Quvenzhané Wallis) that takes place at an outdoor court that reminded me of one of my favourite sports movies, Love & Basketball. Some of the moments in which the young team mates bond and come together will have you cheering them on too. Outside of AFC Richmond, I don’t think I’ve ever rooted for a fictional sports team harder in my life.
Basketball is always front and centre in ‘Swagger’, but the show also delivers in a big way off the court and really stands out when the on and off court issues become intertwined. Corruption within youth basketball is tackled head on as are the extreme pressures put on young players, especially those with such a spotlight on them from a young age. As the series goes on, we see how this affects the players and their families and there’s a couple of particularly heavy storylines involving some of Jace’s teammates that are at times, very difficult to watch. It tackles bigger themes of love, family, loyalty and friendship and also doesn’t shy away from highlighting issues like systematic racism, police brutality and social justice. There’s one episode in the second half of the season that is extremely powerful and contains one scene in particular that left me with a real sense of anger and despair. There’s a lot going on in the show and it quickly introduces us to a large cast of characters. Everything feels a little busy during the first episode as we try to keep track of the characters and various storylines, but the show settles down and begins to find its groove by episode two and, for the most part, doesn’t look back.
If you didn’t know this show was an Apple TV+ show, you certainly will after watching a couple of episodes. The show makes use of on-screen overlays that show iMessages that a particular character is reading and even shows the Apple Maps blue arrow icon to indicate a new location. There’s one scene too where a character receives a news alert on his phone and we see the Apple News app icon and story headline appear on-screen. Initially, I found this a little cheesy; however, the show does a great job of using it at times to really amplify the stress and never-ending pressure that some of these characters feel. Jace and his team have the eyes of the basketball world on them and you really get a sense of what life is like for these young players and how this affects them mentally and this technique amplifies that.
While ‘Swagger’ isn’t just a show about basketball, when it comes to showcasing the sport itself, the series really excels. The game scenes throughout the season are nothing short of spectacular and are some of the best I’ve ever seen in film or television. The choreography is stunning and it’s evident from every single game scene, just how much care and attention to detail has gone into meticulously crafting each one. I’m a huge basketball fan and lover of the sports movie genre and have never come across a basketball film where the game scenes ever quite manage to capture the excitement and adrenaline of watching a real life game, but ‘Swagger’ comes closer than anything I’ve seen before. From the close-up, tracking camera shots that follow entire plays during a game without cutting away to the visceral sound design that makes you feel every dunk, block and hard foul, I found myself on the edge of my seat on several occasions during the action.
If you’re able to, I’d highly recommend watching some of the basketball game scenes with a good pair of headphones for an rather intense, immersive experience. I watched the first few episodes using AirPods Pro and felt like I’d been dropped right into the venue at certain points. I would love to know what kind of basketball training the young actors went through prior to filming. My jaw was on the floor during some of the game scenes and watching how these actors brought the action to life. The soundtrack really helps in bringing these action-packed scenes to life as well as some of the other, heavier moments in the series. This show is a feast for the eyes and ears and the input from Kevin Durant, who serves as executive producer, is evident both in the game scenes and in showing what life is like off the court for these players.
The show is very much a story that is rooted in the world today, but its inclusion of COVID-19 feels like a mis-step. It’s introduction to the story is probably going to be divisive and I can see why some people might enjoy it. Personally, I’d happily never see or hear about coronavirus in another TV show again and I worry that its addition is going to make films and TV shows feel dated very quickly. In fairness, in tackling so many other real-life current events and subject matters, I can understand the decision to work it into the storyline. There’s a couple of moments where it works quite well and you really feel the confusion and pressures that are put upon the young players as they try to navigate the virus on top of everything else going on, but ultimately it feels as though the show could have simply done without it and still have been just as impactful.
It’s clear from the first episode that COVID-19 is going to be introduced into the story at some stage so its not exactly a surprise when it does happen. It comes into play gradually as we hear snippets of news reports in car radios or on tv about the virus spreading in other countries early on. It’s presence begins to ramp up as the season progresses with members of the crowd at games wearing masks and the sense of confusion among players and coaches heightening. A time jump later in the season moves things forward and from this point on, COVID becomes a normal part of life in the show’s world. Characters wear masks and undergo temperature checks and rather than being a major storyline, it just becomes something that exists in the background that the characters just live with - much like we all do now. It does feel like the show was partly re-written to include COVID and there’s one pretty major character who becomes confined to only appearing in the show via FaceTime in the second half. The show does explain this; however, I have to wonder if this was done out of necessity rather than being a deliberate creative decision. For a show that already focus on several storylines and deals with some heavy subject matters, COVID feels like it clutters things slightly at times.
One element that I did like was the inclusion of the players finding out about Utah Jazz Center Rudy Gobert, who contracted COVID-19 in March 2020, leading to the historic shutdown of the NBA season. ‘Swagger’ does a great job of blending together these real-life moments and subjects into its world; however, I was already heavily invested in these characters prior to COVID-19 really coming into focus in the show and overall, I feel like it would have been stronger and ultimately feel more timeless in the long run without it.
There’s a lot going on ‘Swagger’ and a lot of characters to get to know. It’s goal is to be more than just a sports show and there’s a lot of bigger themes at play throughout its ten hours. For this reason, it takes a couple of episodes to really find its feet but ultimately scores big both on and off the court. The hour long episode format and the brilliant storytelling help create a fully formed world that you’ll want to return to with characters that you’ll quickly come to care a lot about. Jace and Ike, in particular, are both fascinating, engaging lead characters and I found myself wanting to see where their complicated relationship would go next at the end of each episode. While there’s a couple of plot threads left dangling for a second season, the show’s ten hours allows storylines to fully breathe and develop. The social justice elements of the story are handled with care and deliver some of the biggest emotional gut punches. The game scenes are some of the best I’ve ever seen and will have you on the edge of your seat. With the exception of the inclusion of COVID-19, which the show feels like it would have been better without, ‘Swagger’ is an absolute slam dunk.
'Swagger' premieres Friday October 29th on Apple TV+ with the first three episodes. A new episode premieres every subsequent Friday.
James has been a fan of Apple for as long as he can remember. He is a film & TV obsessive and has also written for several publications such as BBC Good Food Magazine. He lives in Glasgow, Scotland and can usually be found drinking copious amounts of coffee, watching Apple TV+ and talking about it with anyone who will listen.