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Reggie Rock Bythewood's Riveting Sports Drama Gives Apple TV+ a Reason to Swagger

Orlando Jones plays an antagonist for the ages in the show's excellent second season.
  • Jason Rivera, Caleel Harris, O'Shea Jackson Jr., Isaiah Hill, and Shannon Brown star in Swagger (Photo: Apple TV+)
    Jason Rivera, Caleel Harris, O'Shea Jackson Jr., Isaiah Hill, and Shannon Brown star in Swagger (Photo: Apple TV+)

    Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty may have just returned to HBO with even more stylistic excess, but if any sports drama should be holding court on TV, it’s Reggie Rock Bythewood’s Swagger. The series, which wrapped its second season on August 11, has as much flair as heart, pairing gripping basketball scenes with moments that emphasize the importance of community, especially for rising stars like Jace Carson (Isaiah Hill).

    With its propulsive storytelling and swelling emotions on and off the hardwood, Swagger could easily be seen as a 21st-century Friday Night Lights. But Bythewood’s series, which takes inspiration from NBA superstar Kevin Durant’s time in the AAU, isn’t interested in merely following in another show’s footsteps, however influential that NBC drama may be. Instead, like the athletes, coaches, and educators at the center of its story, Swagger stands on the shoulders of those that came before it, cognizant of all the sacrifice and success needed for it to even exist, and making the most of the opportunity.

    Throughout Swagger’s two seasons, Bythewood has displayed the same ambition he showed in works like his expansive Fox drama Shots Fired — first, he made the bold choice to center the action in the youth basketball circuit, which has rarely been dramatized for film or TV. But it proved to be just as rich and thrilling a setting as college or professional basketball, as Jace found brotherhood, not just a strong team, in Swagger DMV, and a father figure in charismatic coach Ike Edwards (the even more charismatic O’Shea Jackson Jr.) The Season 1 finale, “Florida,” showed that, once Jace had fully bonded with Ike and his Swagger teammates Musa (Caleel Harris), Phil (Solomon Irama), and Drew (James Bingham), there was no limit to what he — and the show — could do.

    Season 2 represents another big swing for the show, as the story leaps forward nearly four years after the events of Season 1. Jace, Phil, Musa, Drew, and Coach Ike now find themselves in the posh environs of Cedar Cove Prep, where athletic director Emory Lawson (Orlando Jones) gives new meaning to the word “exacting.” Dr. Lawson recruited them all to build on Cedar Cove basketball’s prominent reputation, but he also expects them to live up to the school’s high academic standards — even Ike, who must return to college to solidify his position as coach.

    Lawson could easily have been a straightforward antagonist, a grasping intellectual willing to do whatever it takes, including taking advantage of these teen athletes, to advance his own position. If that’s the role Jones had taken on, Swagger Season 2 would still have provided powerful insights on the pitfalls of success, and how quickly those who cheer you on can turn on you. As the real Wanda Durant counsels Jace’s mother Jenna (Shinelle Azoroh) in the premiere: "Some of the people that love your son, will love to hate him."

    Orlando Jones (Photo: Apple TV+)

    But rather than present Lawson as the physical manifestation of that sentiment or a mere obstacle on the team’s road to victory, Bythewood and his team — including writers Autumn Joy Jimerson and Racquel Baker and directors Matthew A. Cherry and Nijla Mu'min — position him as the other side of the Ike Edwards coin. Where Ike is unfailingly warm and encouraging with his players, Lawson believes he should "only award those who win your respect." They can both play ball and jam to Chuck Brown, but Lawson is certain they have no other common ground, while Ike resents being written off. Ike believes Lawson is too attached to W.E.B. Dubois’ Talented Tenth theory, unwilling to accept that there are different types of success, and Lawson thinks Ike needs to expect more from himself and others.

    The stage is set for a showdown, on and off the court. But when Ike and Lawson go toe to toe, as they do on multiple occasions, it’s more illuminating than explosive. Flashbacks reveal why Lawson demands excellence from himself and everyone around him: His father told him early on that "We must present nothing less than our best selves." But his beliefs are rooted in more than his own past; Lawson is concerned with optics because the rest of the world is, including the school’s board of trustees. Lawson is a pragmatist — he takes the steps he takes to ensure that Black students and athletes will continue to have opportunities at prestigious schools like Cedar Cove, however limited that number may be.

    Just as he did with Jace in Season 1, Ike motivates Lawson to dream bigger — their clash and other moments throughout the season reveal the limits of respectability politics. And when they forge a mutual respect, it’s as exhilarating as any of the many Cedar Cove Mustangs victories. Jones plays Lawson as imperious yet grounded, combining a competitive streak with a genuine desire to help future generations succeed. As Ike, Jackson Jr. shows the same big-hearted humanity, which is greatly tested when a midseason development threatens to derail Jace’s life.

    But Swagger Season 2 is far from a game of one on one: The show’s world only gets bigger, as Jace and the rest of the Swagger crew contemplate their futures while also reckoning with the past. Hill really blossoms as a performer, showing ever greater confidence as Jace edges closer to a big payday. Quvenzhané Wallis turns in another remarkable performance as Crystal, whose star burns just as brightly as Jace’s. Jenna comes out on top in both her personal and professional lives, and Tonya (Christina Jackson) works quickly to make life at Cedar Cove Prep more inclusive for the school’s Black students.

    Though it gets a boost from Jones and Jackson Jr.’s interplay, the series’s ongoing exploration of how the basketball industry treats the gifted Black athletes that fill its ranks is still a team effort. The private interests just waiting to capitalize on their talent are represented by Vinessa Shaw as a Cedar Cove board member, along with a returning Tristan Wilds as Gladiator Sneakers impresario Alonzo Powers. Ike’s philosophy, handed down by his father — “love the game, but love the players more” — provides a necessary counterpoint to corporate greed and Lawson’s prodding (even if the latter is born of good intentions). Hill and Wallis winningly depict the inner turmoil of teens on the cusp of adulthood and fame, while supporting actors like Harris and Irama capture the experience of those not content to wait to call “next.”

    The fifth episode of Season 2, “Are We Free?,” presents a slight detour, but it’s one of the most powerful hours of TV this year. It expands on the show’s themes by demonstrating that even the most exceptional Black kids can find their potential limited by a system designed to punish broadly rather than nurture them individually. The stakes are higher than ever by the end of the season, especially as word of mouth spreads and the show’s fans and creator await news of a Season 3 renewal. Jace’s future may be up in the air, but Swagger is already a sports dynasty in the making.

    Swagger Seasons 1 and 2 are streaming on Apple TV+.

    Danette Chavez is the Editor-in-Chief of Primetimer and its biggest fan of puns.

    TOPICS: Swagger, Apple TV+, Isaiah Hill, Orlando Jones, O'Shea Jackson Jr., Quvenzhané Wallis, Reggie Rock Bythewood