Snowfall Wednesdays, 10 p.m., FX. Premieres July 5.
The promotional tagline for FX’s Snowfall is “How crack began,” but halfway through the show’s 10-episode first season, there’s no crack in sight. That type of slow-burning plot development is nothing new for prestige dramas, but if a show is going to take this much time to get to its ostensible point, there needs to be something compelling to watch along the way. Created by filmmaker John Singleton along with Eric Amadio and Dave Andron, Snowfall tells three concurrent and only briefly intersecting stories set in 1983 LA: The most effective involves South Central teen Franklin Saint (Damson Idris), an upstanding smart kid who’s given up his college prospects to help out his mom at home and who finds himself drawn to the lure of easy money in the drug trade.
Mexican immigrants Lucia (Emily Rios), Gustavo (Sergio Peris-Mancheta) and Pedro (Filipe Valle Costa) are a bit more ambitious than Franklin, although they’re all looking to get into the same lucrative business of dealing cocaine. Much of their supply comes from undercover CIA agent Teddy McDonald (Carter Hudson), who’s working with Nicaraguan Contras to trade drugs for arms in their fight against the Sandinistas. Watching Franklin slowly break bad is more engaging than the familiar drug-dealer drama in the other storylines (although there are plenty of clichés in Franklin’s story as well), and it’s especially tough to sympathize with Teddy as he knowingly floods the local market with dangerous narcotics.
At this point, though, it’s still cocaine and not crack that Teddy is bringing into the U.S., and there’s a sort of slow-motion train-wreck quality to the storytelling, with bits of clumsy foreshadowing that resemble Bates Motel’s relationship to Psycho or Gotham’s relationship to Batman. Those shows are pulpy and exaggerated, though, with the opportunity for sly humor. Singleton and his fellow creators seem to be aiming for a sprawling social commentary along the lines of Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic, but the show more closely resembles Netflix’s Narcos, using period details to smooth over its lack of complex characters and original storylines.
Narcos at least had Pablo Escobar, but Snowfall’s fictional characters are small-time players in its historical context. A show focused solely on Franklin and his friends and family, the changes in his neighborhood and community, would have played to Singleton’s strengths and grounded the story in recognizable human drama, instead of attempting to capture the entire range of a complicated political situation. The acting is mediocre all around, and the direction is slick but anonymous, with the look of any number of B-movie crime thrillers. That would be okay for a show with B-movie ambitions, but Snowfall seems to be aiming higher, only to fall back on the kind of overused devices it should be subverting.