TV doesn’t really get summers off anymore, thanks in part to streaming platforms. The hottest months of the year are no longer just a repository for reruns, or a dumping ground for shows that couldn’t hold their own during the fall. GLOW and Preacher are the most recent cases in point, having held audiences in their grips for a weekend binge-watch as well as on a weekly basis. The season is still far from being chock-full of must-see offerings, though, which means conditions are optimal for the arrival of Snowfall, the latest crime drama to hit FX.
Debuting Wednesday night, the series aims to trace the origins of the first crack cocaine epidemic in Los Angeles. That’s a tall order, and Snowfall gamely tries to live up to the challenge, with mixed results. Its focus is both granular and sweeping, delving into the private lives of those instrumental in bringing crack to the streets of Southern California while keeping the Iran-Contra affair top of mind. Creators John Singleton, Eric Amadio, and Dave Andron establish three main storylines in their impressive pilot, then spend the rest of the season filling out the edges of those worlds. From there, the series keeps pushing outward, stretching from L.A. to the Valley and Oakland, with the Nicaraguan jungle and the White House in the periphery.
Though the expansion feels necessary, given the subject material—which includes a presidential scandal—Snowfall’s almost too ambitious for its own good in its first season. Since disparate stories with occasional overlap are still very much in TV fashion, the series has loaded up on three leads. Though not biographical, Snowfall deals a heavy dose of realism via its central characters: Franklin Saint (Damson Idris) is an enterprising young black man from the hood whose astuteness could be his undoing; Lucia Villanueva (Emily Rios), a Mexican drug lord’s daughter, similarly wants to rise above her station; and CIA agent Teddy McDonald (Carter Hudson) just wants back in the game. Their backgrounds couldn’t be more different, but they share the same desire for something more, whether it’s power, money, or respect in the workplace.
Their screen time might be evenly split, but these stories are not equally compelling. Franklin’s trajectory is easily the most interesting, even if it requires a significant leap of faith early on from the viewer. Once a promising college student, Franklin’s now working part-time in a convenience store and dealing a little weed with his uncle (Amin Joseph). He didn’t skip college because he didn’t think he could cut it; he was looking two or three moves beyond his diploma, and he became convinced that this country doesn’t really reward educated people of color. It’s an earth-shattering revelation, especially given how much time he spent living and code-switching in the Valley to remain close to his “diverse” high school. But Snowfall rushes past that, albeit out of necessity, to set Franklin on the path to kingpin. Idris’ magnetic presence mostly makes up for the narrative shortcomings; even before he’s buying out the ice-cream man, he walks his block like the de facto leader of the neighborhood.
As the season unfolds, we learn that a top-notch education isn’t the only thing that’s shaped Franklin—the work ethic of his mother (Michael Hyatt) both pushed and pulled him from the straight and narrow, while his father’s work with the Black Panthers helped him see there are other ways to lead. And although he abstains from sampling his product—first cocaine, then crack—Snowfall doesn’t treat Franklin as some detached ascetic. He hangs out with his friends and, for a while, manages to keep a happy home.
Singleton and his co-creators mostly nail Franklin’s arc, offering both a satisfying conclusion (should Snowfall not live past season one) that could also easily serve as a bridge to new episodes. Franklin’s world, similar in setting to that of Singleton’s Boyz N The Hood, is also the most fleshed out. The other stories don’t pay off quite as well, though Lucia’s rebelling against the machismo of her culture resonates far more than Teddy’s working stiff shtick. But the series snowballs over time, taking on more ancillary characters, which it gives just enough heft to suggest they’ll be pivotal down the line, even though they make it all the more difficult to be fully immersed in the present. Which is a shame, because the three leads—Idris, Rios, and, to a lesser extent, Hudson—offer compelling character portrayals.
For all the character and stories Snowfall gives, it also asks for a lot of patience, especially in the first six episodes. It’s not just a matter of overlooking Franklin’s precipitous switch to American Gangster mode just weeks after starting his weed hustle; several episodes drop breadcrumbs for future episodes, and possibly, future seasons. A dash of optimism isn’t out of place here, but as several of the characters learn, even a not-too-distant payday is still too far away. Some detours are enjoyable, like the Hiro Murai-directed chapter, which is almost Snowfall’s bottle (or is it baggie?) episode. But, as a kind of successor to The Wire and Justified—the latter a former FX series—Snowfall mostly delivers on its promise. But it also benefits from having more room to breathe than most freshman dramas. If Snowfall really wants to establish any kind of empire, it’ll have to run leaner in future installments.
Reviews by Kyle Fowle will run weekly