[CAUTION: mild spoilers about Snowfall ahead!]
I went into FX's Snowfall with some skepticism. The story of how crack began in L.A., which the series tackles, was a story I thought I'd seen in some shape or form countless times already: the 1988 film Colors;the 1992 film South Central; USA's show Kill the Messenger; West Coast rap videos; A&E's great 2016 documentary on Compton; and of course John Singleton's masterpiece Boyz n the Hood. Not only had the story been done to death, it conjures up depressing imagery of a community self-destructing and conspiracy theories that, in light of evidence, don't seem so farfetched. Based on what people who were there have said about the period, crack's birth is a horror story, not a drama.
But in Snowfall, Singleton and executive producers/co-creators Dave Andron and Eric Amadio avoid devastation porn and images of the ashy-mouthed addicts we remember from New Jack City or even The Chappelle Show. Snowfall is a serious, slow-burn crime drama on par with drug dramas like Narcos, and digs deep into the interconnected tales of people who bring a deadly product to market. The series moves so slowly in fact that — sorry to tell you — you won't even see much actual crack dealing in the first season. What you will see is how poverty, the hedonism of early '80s L.A., Mexicans, blacks and government agents all swirled together to create a perfect storm for a cheap product to come through and hook consumers.
Singleton, forever linked to South L.A. through his seminal film (the area shed the "South Central" moniker in an effort to rebrand in the the early 2000s), makes his presence felt through Franklin Saint (Damson Idris), who lives with his strict mom Sharon, divinely played by crime drama queen Michael Hyatt. When we meet him, the not-subtly-named Mr. Saint is level-headed, mostly — his selling pot for his gangster uncle Jerome (Amin Joseph) the height of his criminal activity. He gets a quick immersion in cocaine business though, progressively losing his innocence along the way.
Unbeknownst to Franklin, his new enterprise links him with shady characters including Gustavo "El Oso" Zapata (Sergio Peris-Mencheta), a Mexican wrestler who sinks deeper and deeper into trouble with a crime family, as well as Teddy McDonald (Carter Hudson), a CIA operative who stumbles on mountain of cocaine he plans to turn to cash to fund Nicaraguan Contras. Snowfall treats the U.S. government's actual, real-life role in the making of crack not as a conspiracy theory, but the morally fuzzy choice of an idealistic agent with a messy personal life and penchant for risk that yields unintended consequences.
Saint comes to befriend other crime bosses too, including Avi (Alon Aboutboul), the perpetually Speedo and gold chain-wearing coke dealer-in-a-mansion archetype; and Claudia (Judith Scott), a female gangstress who runs an underground nightclub full of thieves, hustlers, cops and party people. As Snowfall unravels, we — one more time for emphasis — slowly come to learn how all these players come to be patients zero, so to speak, in an impending outbreak of an epidemic.
Although we won't see it hit, the anticipation of impact gives the episodes a tension that justifies the series' trickling pace. Franklin's story is the most compelling, a little ironic given that "young black drug dealer in South Central" is not new narrative ground. But whereas crack stories usually show how dealers get seduced by keeping up with the Joneses, Franklin — aware that his mom is at the mercy of a merciless boss and that Cali doesn't have black colleges like on the East Coast — sees drugs as a way to develop business acumen. He's a hustler, but a type we haven't seen before — the West Coast version of Breaking Bad, if you will.
Unfortunately, Franklin's addictive story comes at the expense of the less magnetic supporting stories, which sometimes drag or get bogged down in bringing to life historical details, particularly Teddy's U.S./Nicaraguan plot. And though the increasingly bad quagmire Gustavo finds himself in gets juicy, it's Franklin's metamorphosis from doting son and budding businessman to criminal that makes Snowfall cool. So what, that this is familiar ground? Lit against a lush, distinctly L.A. palette and propelled by a dope early '80s rap/funk soundtrack, Franklin's scoring and selling and beatdowns at the hands of merciless thugs are all part of an intoxicating journey that's hard to take your eyes off of.
By the end of the sixth episode, after Franklin has nearly lost his life and renounced the drug game, he of course decides that cocaine — a pastime for the affluent white people on the other side of town — is a fantastic opportunity... Just with a few risks and a few strategies to figure out. As his uncle and reluctant accomplice tells him, cocaine means dealing with dangerous white people, untrustworthy Mexicans and having a target on your back. The only way to make it a safe business, then, is to sell it in your own neighborhood.
We know the rest. Or do we? Snowfall makes the case that when it comes to crack, there's far more to learn.
Snowfall premieres Wednesday, July 5 at 10/9c on FX.