‘Snowfall’ Dramatizes How the Crack Epidemic Began
John Singleton’s ambitious new FX series brings to life the origins of the 1980s crack epidemic in Los Angeles. But given the subject matter, shouldn’t the show be more addicting?
A slow, deliberate pace has become, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse, the hallmark of prestige cable dramas in this age of #PeakTV. In the case of Snowfall, FX’s ambitious drama promising to dramatize “how crack began” in 1980s Los Angeles, the scale of the sprawl and the leisurely crawl is its biggest detriment. Crassly speaking, it takes far too long for viewers to get their fix.
Three hours into the series from co-creator John Singleton (Boyz n the Hood), a vibrant and transporting depiction of South Central Los Angeles at an explosive time in its history is firmly and stylishly established. Not yet established, however, is the central action. With the lead characters embedding themselves into various cocaine deals in the first episodes, “crack” has yet to even be mentioned. And it’s unclear at what point in the 10-episode season it finally will.
What Snowfall is banking on is the buildup to a reveal. That exposition is what dominates the first portion of the season: three concurrent stories that attempt to explain how cultural oppression, the flammable combination of urban ennui and ’80s ambition, and the CIA’s own clandestine involvement spawned the country’s first major crack cocaine epidemic.
The curious thing about Snowfall is how glaringly the ask it is making of its viewers is at odds with the tension rising between the various players in the complicated drug ring depicted onscreen: an assumption of patience, and blind trust that it will deliver.
There’s something to be said, of course, for the power of context, the importance of painting a responsible historical picture, and the gratification that comes from a series that establishes a robust universe, particularly when attempting to tell the story of something so culturally vital but rarely given a treatment this expensive, or dignified.
More, FX viewers have proven their appreciation for this style of show, with the successes of The Americans, Fargo, Legion, and even the American Horror Story franchise proof of a willingness to imbibe in challenging and sometimes even circuitous storytelling, so long as it’s meticulously crafted and superbly acted.
Snowfall, however, stands out because of just how straightforward its storytelling is. That can be rewarding on an episode-by-episode basis, with each hour cleanly structured and satisfyingly wrapped up. But where you expect a series like this to crackle and spark with energy, it sort of marches forward at a comfortable, settled clip, led along by a rather traditional filmmaking style and drug-and-crime movie clichés.
There’s Franklin Saint (Damson Idris), the young man who is ostensibly the show’s lead. Franklin is a good boy, with a good convenience store job, a good relationship with his mother, and a good head on his shoulders—who sees a good opportunity when his small-potatoes side work pushing marijuana suddenly graduates to a more lucrative, though far more dangerous, cocaine operation.
Franklin’s is a story of squandered potential and the constrictions of his birth place. “What was the point of you going to that fancy school in the Valley if you were gonna bail on college and stay around here?” one of his friends asks. “You know how I felt in that fancy school in the Valley? Like an outsider. A mascot. College is gonna be the same shit.”
Franklin’s storyline is Snowfall’s stress drama, a ticking time bomb for tragedy or corruption befalling our good hero. In fact, the inevitability of it and the resistance to protect Franklin from the harsh reality of it is a virtue of the show’s creative accuracy.
Spinning out of control in parallel fashion is a cocaine operation spearheaded by Lucia (Emily Rios), the daughter of a Mexican-American drug honcho eager to plant a flag in her own risky cocaine operation—one that she runs with such brutish confidence in the early episodes that you fear the certain repercussions of her initial naiveté, like with Franklin.
Tangled in all of this, and maybe even the most illuminating thread, is disgraced CIA operative Teddy (Carter Hudson) and his partnership with Alejandro (Juan Javier Cardenas), a Contra soldier who relies on Teddy’s help to import drugs into the U.S. to fund a cocaine business that will pay for weapons to send back to Nicaragua to help his family and community fight the Sandinistas.
As is always the case with a period drama, particularly one that trades in the contrasting worlds of drug use—derelict, rock-bottom dependency and privileged, wealthy indulgence and excess—there’s a tension between sensationalism and realism at play.
The pilot, perhaps in a play for your attention, leans heavily into the sensationalism. Within the first 10 minutes, we’re transported to a cocaine orgy with threesomes, a white powder budget that could fund an entire season of a broadcast series, a parade of butts and naked bodies, and a woman blowing cocaine into a man’s butthole while he is being fellated by someone else.
“Why does a dead CIA office have a mountain of cocaine in a hot tub?” is a pivotal line of dialogue in the first hour.
For all the titillation, it’s when the series moves squarely into the grit of the real world that it becomes immensely watchable.
The series benefits maybe even more than most recent series from the fact that cable TV can basically be a rated-R movie these days. The graphic nature of the violence, drug use, and moral ambiguity lends it the kind of gravitas that commands your attention.
And it goes without saying that, particularly on FX, it is still monumental for a prestige drama series to exist in which a majority of the cast is made up of people of color. The performances rise to the ambition of the material, especially Idris in the lead role, Michael Hyatt as his protective mother, and Amin Joseph as his conflicted uncle. The rapport established between Hudson and Cardenas as Teddy and Alejandro is refreshingly complicated in the greater oeuvre of forced and unlikely partnerships: two men at odds with their own goals, but united by their loneliness, anxiety, and sense of duty.
Driving everything that happens in Snowfall, of course, is addiction: to money, to success, to freedom, to the thrill of illicit operations, and to the drug business, if not necessarily the drugs themselves. For all the series’ attributes, that fact alone makes its biggest risk all the more baffling: an assumption about how long we’ll wait to become addicted ourselves.