Our TV options are ever expanding, both in programming and platforms, but that overabundance has created a climate that’s mostly inhospitable for slow-burn dramas. That high-concept premise sound too confusing? Move on. Pilot not compelling enough? Wait a day (or during fall premieres, an hour) for something that will grab you right away. There have always been hidden gems, even when there were only a handful of networks. But somehow, viewers are making more informed decisions than ever, thanks to trailers and/or our friendly neighborhood pop culture site’s previews, while also dismissing new shows outright. Time isn’t a luxury; it’s currency. With a finite number of hours in the day, and even fewer for watching TV, the selection process has become more refined—and brutal.
I took this into consideration in my pre-air review of FX’s Snowfall, which tracks the rise of crack cocaine in Los Angeles. John Singleton’s sprawling period drama is a splashy but restrained affair, driven by character as much as the need to tell a story with repercussions that are still felt today. The Boyz N The Hood and Higher Learning director has teamed up with Justified alums Dave Andron and Leonard Chang, who also know a thing or two about drug-ravaged communities that are left to fend for themselves. Together, they tackle the crack epidemic from multiple fronts, which are all deftly introduced in the pilot. At its best, Snowfall puts a human face on the supply and demand, while shining a light on shadowy external forces.
So I’ve already made a case for this show, whose summer premiere has been a mixed blessing. We still don’t associate this time of year with the most auspicious offerings, but Snowfall leans so heavily on its serialization—even as it takes a microscopic approach to most episodes—that it would be hard-pressed to compete with showier dramas in a more cluttered setting. But with all the other pending arrivals, this is one of the few shows I’ve re-watched this summer, thanks in part to its capable and inclusive cast. Emily Rios, whose roles in Breaking Bad and The Bridge placed her on the periphery (and radar) of cartels, is now a kingpin in the making as Lucia Villanueva. Her ambition is matched by Franklin Saint (Damson Idris), a charming and calculating college dropout who becomes more interested in financial security than respectability. Their lieutenants and families, including a luminous Michael Hyatt as Franklin’s mom, are all people of color. And while it’s a shame that drug-centered dramas seem to be the only series to feature so many actors of color in lead and supporting roles, the fact that there are no weak links here still sends a powerful message to casting directors.
There are enough players in these worlds—southern Los Angeles and Mexicali—to keep Snowfall’s writers busy and audiences entertained. Due to their geographical proximity, Franklin’s and Lucia’s stories intersect quickly and meaningfully, laying the groundwork for future partnerships or conflicts. But there’s still another part to this triad, one that at first glance seems to undermine the whole thing. That’s Teddy (Carter Hudson), a CIA agent whose confidence has been shaken and who’s lost the faith of his superiors at Langley. For much of the first eight episodes, Teddy’s storyline is as muted as his work wardrobe and office decor. He drags his feet on everything, whether it’s patching up his marriage or moving forward with a covert op (that turns out to be funding a paramilitary group) after his partner is killed. Hudson does his best, but Teddy’s ambivalence is a hard sell, and ultimately nowhere near as compelling as the life-or-death decisions being made by Lucia and Franklin.
But as the show enters its penultimate episode, it’s become clear just how much skin and influence Teddy has in this game. His actions have the most far-reaching consequences—Teddy’s not just a company man, he is the company. He’s both of the Reagans, Ronald and Nancy, working with paramilitary groups and cartels from afar while balking at the idea of having drugs in his own backyard. This important piece of the puzzle may feel like it’s been added belatedly, but it’s been in the periphery the whole time. Rather than explore these various groups and institutions—the cartels, street-level dealers, and government agencies—across multiple seasons, Snowfall’s introduced them all at once. The story implicates everyone from a soldier in the Nicaraguan jungle to the president of the United States, who are all poised for future run-ins. Early on, this just seems overly ambitious; it’s not until the second half that the series starts tying together these arcs. But like Franklin, Snowfall is thinking two or three moves ahead; and while that’s caused the occasional stumble, it’s also set up a compelling long game, one that it’s not too late to join.
Snowfall airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET on FX.