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Review: Roku Channel’s Original Series ‘Swimming with Sharks’ Is a Dark Tale of Power and Obsession in Tinseltown

Review: Roku Channel’s Original Series ‘Swimming with Sharks’ Is a Dark Tale of Power and Obsession in Tinseltown

This month, The Roku Channel expands its impressive library of original programming with its new series, Swimming with Sharks, a dark psychological thriller loosely adapted from the 1994 film of the same name. Writer and first-time showrunner Kathleen Robertson, who also acts in the series, gives us a voyeuristic view into the sinister side of Hollywood. The series explores the allure of Tinseltown, the complexities of mental illness, and the infectious nature of power. 

Lou Simms (Kiernan Shipka) moves from Colorado to Hollywood and lands a coveted internship at Fountain Pictures. She puts on this facade of a naive newcomer, but she’s actually very intuitive and calculated. Lou idolizes the studio’s CEO Joyce Holt (Diane Kruger), but as the series progresses, we see this admiration is actually an obsession. Joyce’s catty assistants Travis (Thomas Dekker) and Alex (Ross Butler) are a rude welcome into showbiz, but that doesn’t deter Lou from her aspirations. 

In the beginning, it seems like Joyce is the classic ice queen boss who keeps her employees living in fear, a la Miranda Tate. However, the more time we spend with her, the more we see her vulnerability and the toll the job weighs on her. She works for Fountain Pictures’ studio head Redmond (Donald Sutherland), a grotesque and cruel old man, who makes life harder for Joyce, and probably everyone else. 

The tone is a bit unusual (in a good way). Unlike the film, it’s definitely not a comedy, or at least not centered around humor. Some moments are funny, mostly all of the absurdity studio underlings have to deal with, like applying hand cream for their boss. 

Though it’s not horror, I’d describe the series as more Starry Eyes than Neon Demon. Both are two female-centric “Hollywood is scary” movies that follow young women trying to break into this business. But Lou isn’t the ingenue longing for fame, which is intriguing itself. We don’t really feel like we need to be scared for Lou, though the people she’s around should be afraid of her. 

Swimming with Sharks isn’t set in the sunny Hollywood we typically see on screen. There’s a muted glamor to the cinematography and a universal bleakness to the atmosphere. The overall style of Swimming with Sharks exudes avant-garde, starting with the opening credits, making the series feel like a collage. Robertson uses footage of old Hollywood, like movie premieres at the TCL Chinese Theatre, that bleed into the present. From Lou’s point of view (and possibly the audience, depending on your own view of Hollywood), this is the land of movies, rich with history. 

With just six 30-minute episodes, the series is an easy binge. At first, I thought it progressed a little too quickly, jumping ahead a few months at a time between episodes. However, by the end, it felt right that this story was told in three hours. Having been originally slated to stream on the failed OTT Quibi, the abrupt transitions make sense. 

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One of my favorite aspects of Swimming with Sharks is how it favors imagery over exposition. It’s an old writing adage, “Show. Don’t tell.” One that I don’t think applies to every story. Here, the choice to show more than tell not only demands the audience’s attention but plays into the visual nature of Hollywood. It’s all about appearances. 

Speaking of appearance, Shipka wears some truly gorgeous dresses, ranging in style from cute and casual to stunning and sexy. The wardrobe fits perfectly with Shipka’s delightfully creepy portrayal of Lou. The actress conveys so much just in her eyes, easily going from faux naivete to cunning.

Kruger’s Joyce appears cold and borderline sociopathic with a wardrobe to match. Everything she wears, even loungewear, is sleek and modern and almost always in solid colors. In contrast, Joyce’s client Meredith (Erika Alexander), an author and budding filmmaker, dons colorful patterns and cool bomber jackets (that I desperately want). 

The daily inner workings of a movie studio itself aren’t too interesting, and truthfully, neither is the competitiveness among employees. However, Swimming with Sharks doesn’t just show us the drama of the industry. It’s about those intimate, unbelievable, and, at times, disturbing moments between those in power and the people beneath them, like Joyce’s interactions with Redmond. In describing one particularly unsettling scene, Kruger admitted, “Shooting that scene was just a reminder of how disgusting and acceptable bad behavior was at a certain time in our society, not just Hollywood.” 

If the series had been a simple remake of a 1994 film starring Kevin Spacey and Frank Whaley, it wouldn’t really work today. Robertson told BGN, “It was a man taking another man down, and that wasn’t of interest to me. I didn’t have any interest in telling a story about a woman trying to take another woman down.” Instead, she crafted a story focusing on two women in the industry and their, albeit unhealthy, relationship. 

With a cast of talented actors and an eerie depiction of the Hollywood studio system, Swimming with Sharks will have you hooked from the first episode. This dark, seductive thriller becomes addictive, and its relatively short runtime makes consuming the series even easier. Kathleen Robertson makes one hell of a showrunner debut, and I can’t wait to see what she does next. 

Swimming with Sharks begins streaming on April 15 on The Roku Channel. The first two episodes premiered at this year’s SXSW.

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