One of the most complex series to debut on TV this year can be boiled down to a three-word tagline: “How crack began.”
Created by Boyz N the Hood director John Singleton, Eric Amadio and Dave Andron, Snowfall (FX, Wednesday 10 ET/PT, **½ out of four) sets out to tell the huge — and hugely consequential — story of how the crack cocaine epidemic took off in South Central Los Angeles in the 1980s. The sprawling series alternates between three different and slightly intersecting narratives. But while Snowfall is striking in its imagery and features several strong performances, it could have benefited from just a little more focus.
Each storyline is grounded by a central figure, although all extend beyond just one perspective. Franklin (Damson Idris), a young weed dealer frustrated by the barriers of institutional racism, takes an unlikely opportunity to get into the much more dangerous world of cocaine. Lucia (Emily Rios) goes behind the back of a major crime lord to try to build her own cocaine business. And Teddy (Carter Hudson) is a troubled CIA agent who takes over the cocaine operation of a dead colleague that funneled money to the Nicaraguan contras.
That’s a lot of story for one series to handle, and, at least in its early episodes, Snowfallnever quite finds a way to balance the changing setting and tone as it jumps around. Harrowing violence gives way to parental drama, which gives way to murder plots. The writing and plotting are just not quite deft enough to compensate for its ballooning world, which only gets more complex as Franklin, Lucia and Teddy delve deeper into their plans. Early episodes are too slow, too confusing and too overstuffed with exposition, as the series takes its time before even mentioning “crack.” The CIA/contra mission feels the most disconnected, and too convoluted to be properly addressed.
For all its faults, however, Snowfall is still an enjoyable and mostly engaging watch, and gets a lot of mileage out of what it does well. TV has no shortage of ’70s and ’80s period pieces, but Snowfall manages to carve out its own distinctive visual style, leaning heavily on the contrast between the the bright blue L.A. sky and the violence and crime happening beneath it. Even in moments of harrowing violence, it’s hard to look away.
Snowfall neither romanticizes its characters nor exploits their pain, but instead shows the inherent drama and tragedy of the drug world. Idris and Rios are both excellent, and Rios has a watchable quality that makes her scenes feel more vital, easily selling Lucia’s vision for success built on the drug business and the trauma that goes along with it.
With that “how crack began” tagline, viewers might wonder when Snowfall was going to find its way to explain that. But the story is gripping enough, and the cast compelling enough to make you want to come back for more. Hopefully, as it moves forward it will focus more on the characters than the ideas they represent. Disparate elements work well on their own; the trick is making them fit together more seamlessly.
You can see the outline of the series it could be in a sunny L.A. sky.