As much as Hollywood likes to celebrate itself, there has always been a dark underbelly to the industry. Often exaggerated and parodied rather than done as a more true form meta critique, Roku’s “Swimming Sharks” is a bit of both in a lot of ways. What begins as a scathing examination of the worst parts of an often shady industry, it quickly spirals into absolute madness fueled by sex, greed, scandal, and yes- even murder.
It’s hard to identify how or what we’re suppose to feel in the first few episodes, but as the mystery unfolds, “Swimming With Sharks” becomes a thrilling, erotic mystery under the guise of self referential industry highlights.
Directed by Tucker Gates and Chris Cowles and written by Kathleen Robertson (who also stars in the series as Olivia Grace), “Swimming with Sharks” stars rising star Kiernan Shipka, Donald Sutherland, Diane Kruger, Thomas Dekker, and Finn Jones (yes, THAT Finn Jones who I personally haven’t fully forgiven for ruining “Iron Fist,” but more on him later).
It tells the story of a young, seemingly naïve Lou Simms who sets her sights on landing an internship at Fountain Pictures, a powerhouse Hollywood studio headed by notorious CEO Joyce Holt (Kruger). Holt is beholden to the grotesque whims of Redmond, the aging owner who just won’t seem to die so Joyce can make her own decisions. Everyone has ulterior motives, and everyone plots and schemes and lies their way to the top, and while Lou may begin her tenure as innocent, but isn’t the seal being hunted by a shark herself.
The series is an adaption of a 1994 film of the same name, with a number of things changed to be updated and more fitting for a female protagonist. I use that term loosely, as “Swimming With Sharks” is quick to paint everyone with a big, broad stroke of gray. There really isn’t a single genuine person that we meet in the beginning, as everyone is more than capable of despicable things and indulges them without hesitation. The series makes no qualms about trying to cut your teeth in a toxic work environment, especially one fueled by a kill or be killed mentality. Hence the very appropriate name, “Swimming with Sharks.” Also? That 1994 version starred Kevin Spacey, which is ironic as hell.
There’s a lot to unpack very quickly, and without anyone to really root for, the series starts out on the backfoot, making its case through heightened and exaggerated antics of some very real but harsh truths about the industry. Every single person is terrible to everyone, and is quick to demean, humiliate, and abuse everyone else around them.
An example is Sutherland’s Redmond, who spends a majority of his time bedridden in a luxurious mansion but is no less disgusting and manipulative. I can’t say for sure, but I would not be shocked to discover that he used Harvey Weinstein as inspiration for the character. Yes, he is THAT gross even without being about to leave his hospice bed.
Most of what fuels “Swimming With Sharks” is sexual manipulation and verbal abuse, and the line quickly blurs between two in a number of ways with a number of different characters. This is where you need to prepare yourself for the hyper sexualization of Shipka, who has to balance the small town girl in the big city and a deeply disturbed woman with an even darker obsession and no limit to her devious deeds.
It’s hard to let go of the young, 16 year old child in Netflix’s “The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina The Teenage Witch,” because she is more than grown up here and script doesn’t shy away from her proclivity for using sex as a weapon to get what she wants. Rest easy, she’s 23 years old now. Yes, I looked it up after the first episode, because I genuinely was uncomfortable with how sexually charged her character is. To be fair, she’s the one using sex to exploit others and not being sexually exploited, but it didn’t make it any less uncomfortable watching her seduce another woman in a club bathroom with a lollipop in places it shouldn’t be.
That reads more softcore than I intended it to, and in context, “Swimming with Sharks” is much more scandalous Hollywood thriller than erotic thriller. Shipka is really good, and delivers a captivating and provocative performances that goes toe to toe with powerhouses like Kruger who’s absolutely going for it with her balance of ruthlessness and vulnerability. The series is so well cast and performed that even Finn Jones is tolerable as Marty, a sleezy assistant to Holt who spends most of his time getting fired on a daily basis but never really let go because he’s as good of a manipulator as the rest of them. I know, I’m as shocked as you are that he doesn’t ruin the entire show, but I surprisingly didn’t hate him and was able to let go of my disdain for him just this once. He’s not forgiven, but he’s not hated in this series.
Where “Swimming With Sharks” gets away from itself is in the untangling mystery of Lou Simms, who is darker and far more devious than she lets on. It’s one thing to say to make it in Hollywood, you have to literally swim with sharks and destroy everyone in your path. It’s quite another to take the obsessions of an obvious psychopath that begins to rack up a body count as take away for how Hollywood success is done. All the toxicity is spot on, and if that was all there was to it, “Swimming with Sharks” would probably pack a bigger punch. It has all the groundwork of “Billions” and “Succession” without the biting wit, but quickly unravels into the absurd as more and more Lou Simms becomes the story.
“Swimming with Sharks” is a lot, and most certainly isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s commentary on absolute power corrupts absolutely is a common one but is demonstrated well to start, along with how abuse in Hollywood is the ultimate trickle down economics of success and “making it.” But making that the central them then going off the rails with murder and downright insane obsession and motives is a little too ambitious for it’s own good, making “Swimming with Sharks” a solid premise with problematic execution.
“Swimming with Sharks” is worth the watch, if for nothing else the good old fashion Hollywood sleaze and drama we all love. But it does come close to crumbling under its own weight, and doesn’t quite stick the landing as much as the promise of doing so early one would have you believe.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Stars
“Swimming With Sharks” will be available to stream on Roku on April 15th, 2022. You can watch the trailer below.