As Swagger returns for Season 2 on Apple TV+, the creator/showrunner speaks exclusively with Boardroom about shaping the show’s highly-anticipated comeback.
Our favorite Apple TV+ original hit series is back and is set to make its return for Season 2 on Friday, June 23.
Following the breakout success of the first season, Swagger welcomes back a list of stars including O’Shea Jackson Jr., Isaiah Hill, Shinelle Azoroh, Academy Award nominee Quvenzhané Wallis, Tristan Mack Wilds, Caleel Harris, and Tessa Ferrer with open arms — and once again, critically acclaimed director and showrunner Reggie Rock Bythewood leads the charge.
Inspired in part by Kevin Durant’s early days playing AAU basketball, the first season of Swagger primarily focused on the early teen years of Jace Carson (Hill) and his friends and teammates as they found their way through adolescent self-discovery and regional hoops. Bythewood explained to Boardroom the second season, meanwhile, depicts these characters as high school seniors looking ahead to a bigger, brighter future. Moreover, one of the key distinctions between the first and second seasons of the original series would be the deeper development of the fictional side of the Swagger universe.
In collaboration with Durant himself and fellow executive producer and Boardroom/35V co-founder Rich Kleiman, Bythewood and the minds behind the show built the first season’s “launching pad” with the essence of Durant’s life. “Any sort of real-life events from KD’s life that I wanted to pull from, they gave me access to, but they also gave a lot of room and space and encouragement to pull from other places,” Bythewood said, noting that specific “emotional touchpoints” were derived from the Phoenix Suns star’s real-life experiences.
Moving ahead, the showrunner added that he’s tapping into a different kind of inspiration arising from an authentic source: his children.
“Going into Season 2, we’re still pulling from real-life events; some of the things are just things that my kids have experienced going to the prep school that they went to,” Bythewood said.
His youngest son, who has just wrapped his freshman year at UCLA, was a high school senior trying to figure out which college he wanted to attend when Swagger was first being written. Suffice it to say that Bythewood was able to seek inspiration from his own home base to give the show a realistic touch for fans whether or not they were deeply invested in basketball.
To keep things naturalistic even when developing concepts not based on stories from the real world, Bythewood also allows for an open conversation between the actors and the team in the writers’ room. Even after the script is developed, the Swagger writing process encourages the actors to share their own ideas as to which sorts of choices make the most sense for their characters.
“I think the other thing that really happens is in Season 2, their level of performance has just reached new heights,” he said of the cast, pointing in particular to Isaiah Hill as a key example of this growth. “In the process of doing the [second] season, when I saw how much vulnerability he was bringing to the first hour of the show, it actually inspired me to make sure in the writer’s room we went back in and found some more opportunities for depth and vulnerability.”
A complementary theme that emerged during the new season’s production? An age-old one: Less is more.
“The other thing that’s really incredible are all the emotional moments that we’re able to have that actively have no dialogue at all. We sort of began to call ’em ‘power of silence’ moments where we are just looking at them and we can feel all the emotion that that’s bringing. That’s like a whole other level of performance that not everybody’s able to do, so we don’t even have to always get dialogue to reach the emotional moments that we’re going after,” Bythewood said.
So, what is it that ultimately makes Swagger what it is today, and which elements are the most important in creating a scripted streaming success on Apple TV+?
“We think of holding the mirror of the society in that way even though it’s a basketball show. The idea is that we try to get our audience leaning in, and while they’re leaning forward with the basketball, we hit ’em with the truth. Because of that, none of them work [without] the other,” Bythewood explained to Boardroom. “If the scripts aren’t right, then the performances can’t be authentic. If the casting isn’t right, that can’t be authentic. If it’s [not] a safe environment that feels inspiring, I don’t even really wanna be there and nobody can perform at their best. What you’re pulling are really key components that really make Swagger work.”
Here’s what Bythewood added to Boardroom about what gives Swagger the particular appeal that secured a loyal audience enthusiastic about returning for another season:
Take One Shot
“This show is so much more about basketball. In many ways, basketball is at times front and center, and much of what we do is peel back the curtain to understand who the characters are and who the people are. I really wanted to take basketball to a new level. We were able to do things that’s never been done cinematically.
“We have a really fun sequence and the first hour of the show where we see O’Shea [Jackson, Jr.], who plays Ike, and Isaiah Hill have a conversation and they’re just shooting free throws and we never cut. We see ’em shoot 10 free throws in a row while holding their conversation, which was fun. Even on a whole other level, [for] our fifth hour of the show, we shot a sequence where the entire basketball game is all in one shot. Like, we’ve never cut. We really wanted to do certain things basketball-wise that we’ve never seen before.”
Man in the Mirror
“This first season, we really wanted to hold a mirror up to society and sort of reflect what’s going on in the real world. While we really reflected [on] the pandemic and the aftermath of Breonna [Taylor] and George Floyd, we really took a look at this idea that when you are looking for inclusion in a school curriculum, when you’re looking for authors that are Black or people of color, that has suddenly become a threat. Right now’s day and age, critical race theory is a sort of campaign component that right-wingers are using to get elected. We’re really looking at the seeds of this idea that there needs to be inclusion — not just by bodies, but within the education system.”
Empathy & Humanity
“The third element was just to really allow people to know and love these characters that we have [and] really understanding what makes Jace, Crystal (Wallis), Phil (Solomon Irama), and Ike and all of our people tick. Really, [it’s] like the secret sauce of the show. While the basketball is really important and the real-life events are important, our performances and really allowing people to invest in their characters is the other part that’s critical for our show.”
“It really needs to feel authentic. The basketball needs to feel authentic, performance needs to feel authentic, and casting needs to really feel authentic. When you talk about the synergy, [it’s about] the idea that it’s creating a safe environment, particularly during a pandemic. A safe environment where people can thrive is critical.”
Power of the Pen
“Everything begins with the writing. I would really say that it’s all connected. One of the things that you hear me saying is every hour of the show. I didn’t really wanna confuse with the terminology that we use but we don’t say episode in the creative process of the show; we say maze. This whole idea that life is not a straight line. It twists and turns like obstacles and opportunities, so it’s a maze. If we really were to think about whether it’s like the Civil Rights Movement or reconstruction era or George Floyd, we’re all in this maze, and we think of our characters that way.”
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