Film & Television

The Noir Side of Hollywood in ‘Swimming with Sharks’

In a typical year, Los Angeles sees 284 days of sunshine. That’s 40 percent more than the average for the United States. So I was surprised at the unrelenting darkness of Swimming with Sharks, the new series on the streaming service ROKU. 

Oh wait, I get it. 

The underside of Tinseltown is dark.

That’s just the first of many obvious choices made by creator, writer, and actor Kathleen Robertson and her team. Swimming with Sharks is stylish, edgy, quite deliberately art directed, but beautifully acted. It’s also disappointingly predictable. And, by covering several months in the lives of Hollywood movers and shakers in less than three hours, it’s paced at a jagged and breakneck speed that leaves very little time to empathize with any of its deeply damaged characters.

ROKU, which acquired the title when it bought the short-lived Quibi Channel, is promoting the series as “Your new guilty pleasure.” And the description is apt, despite the show’s shortcomings. There is inherent satisfaction in watching glamorous people behaving badly. And, the more salacious scenes push boundaries in surprising ways. Suffice it to say, you’ll never look at a pomegranate acai throat lozenge quite the same way again. 

Swimming with Sharks begins with apparently naïve newcomer Lou Simms (Kiernan Shipka, Mad Men) starting a coveted position as an intern for Fountain Studios head Joyce Holt (Diane Kruger, Farewell My Queen). It’s a job any aspiring filmmaker would die for, despite the fact that Holt is a stone-cold bitch who expects her staff to anticipate her every need, and wait on her hand and foot. If this sounds a bit like The Devil Wears Prada, you’re not too far off — except that Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep in one of her many Oscar-nominated roles) was the queen of haughty verbal put-downs. Joyce literally hurls a Louboutin stiletto at her assistant’s head. 

There are two other key differences. While Devil Wears Prada deftly dramatized the sadomasochistic dynamic between an executive arch-villainess and her minions, the earlier film also celebrated moments of absurdity and humor. There is much absurdity in Swimming with Sharks, but not an iota of comic relief. The other difference is that Lou Simms is no Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway). Lou has her own agenda, and it has nothing to do with paying her dues.

Lou arrives at Fountain Studios from Colorado, wide-eyed, in braids and a schoolmarmish dress. She goes out of her way to appear simple and innocent, and Holt’s two assistants (Ross Butler and Thomas Dekker) alternately join her for drinks and eat her for lunch. But, Lou has a secret — multiple secrets, actually. Her name and story are invented for the occasion, and beneath her blonde braids, she’s a conniving player ready for her big break even if she has to break some rules (and kill some people, and have sex, lots and lots of sex) to get there.

“Power is a dangerous, delicate creature. Intoxicating and fickle,” she tells us in one of several overwritten voiceovers. It’s never quite clear whether Lou wants to be Joyce, make love to Joyce, or use Joyce to replace her missing mother (played in flashbacks by Robertson). Regardless, she is ruthless and determined, calculating what Joyce needs and delivering it with an insidious precision that quickly makes her a favorite — and a target for her colleagues. Shipka’s youthful appearance belies Lou’s near-maniacal obsession. Her performance is as fearless as it is disturbing.

I confess that I had to set aside my memories of Sally Draper, hapless daughter and collateral damage of Don and Betty’s domestic discord. Shipka was already impressive when she began her seven seasons of Mad Men at the tender age of eight. Yes, she is an adult now (barely; she was born in 1999), and certainly she can choose more mature roles if she wants to. But I found myself squirming a bit when Lou uses sex to get what she wants. (See note above about pomegranate acai throat lozenge.)

Kruger, whose Joyce looks like an older, finer-lined version of Lou (no accident, I’m sure) gives a performance that becomes surprisingly dimensional. Although she starts off as an incredibly well-dressed antagonist, we learn later that she had to navigate a #MeToo minefield early in her career, and now, as she approaches midlife, she and her artist (and faithless) husband are struggling with fertility. The fact that she, rather quickly, succumbs to Lou’s machinations speaks to a real need for a friend. It’s lonely at the top.

Just ask Fountain Studios’ owner Redmond, played to the hilt by Donald Sutherland. Redmond is a mean-spirited, manipulative predator who is dying of cancer — too slowly, by Joyce’s count. There’s a sense that neither Joyce nor Lou is responsible for her own bad behavior. They are both products of men like Redmond and the industry they built. Rounding out the cast, and giving the material their all, are Erika Alexander as a sought-after writer who isn’t above being bribed (again see note about the throat lozenge), Finn Jones as Joyce’s head of promotion, and Gerardo Celasco as Joyce’s husband, who is happy to seduce young Lou, learning too late that she’s his wife’s intern.

Swimming with Sharks is based — quite loosely — on a 1994 movie by the same name, a black comedy that starred Frank Whaley as the beleaguered assistant to Kevin Spacey’s abusive producer. But, centered around women’s experiences, the new series is more of a contrepoint to 2019’s excellent The Assistant. In fact, that film, by Kitty Green and starring Julia Garner (Inventing Anna), actually evoked a greater sense of dread. Although Swimming with Sharks is set up to be a thriller, the thrills are a bit too obvious, pile up a bit too fast, and are ultimately underwhelming.

If you’re looking for a sleek contemporary tale of the seedy side of Hollywood (not to mention new ideas for throat lozenges), there is much to savor in Swimming with Sharks. And at less than 30 minutes an episode, it’s a quick and easy binge, on TV or online.

However, despite the best efforts of its cast and creators, Swimming with Sharks sinks under the weight of its heavy-handed art direction, gratuitous sex scenes, and overwrought script. You may find when you’ve finished that the story doesn’t stay afloat, or in your mind, for long. 

Swimming with Sharks is available on your streaming television’s ROKU Channel or online at


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