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‘Snowfall’ Can’t Decide What Show It Wants to Be

FX’s sprawling series about the rise of the crack epidemic is admirably ambitious — and so far hard to pull off

(FX)
(FX)

“This is how crack began” is about as forthright a synopsis as a prospective viewer could ask for. With five simple words, Snowfall, FX’s would-be summer tentpole about the 1980s drug trade, comes readymade with stakes and loaded history: about a community’s health and safety, about a desperately needed opportunity for upward mobility, and about the power structure that both created and penalized such conditions. The tagline — which has been plastered on bus stops and billboards nationwide — is also a declaration of sweeping ambition. Turning the crack epidemic into compelling television without reducing or trivializing its complexities is an incredibly high bar for a freshman series to clear. It’s also a threshold that Snowfall, in its initial episodes, so far struggles to meet.

The new drama, premiering Wednesday, was created and is produced by John Singleton, the director who established himself as a bard of sorts for his native South Los Angeles with ’90s films like Boyz N the Hood and Poetic Justice. Given that Snowfall’s cocreators, Dave Andron and Eric Amadio, have considerably lower profiles, and that its lead, British actor Damson Idris, is an unknown in his first leading role, Singleton and his biography have understandably come to dominate coverage of the show. Like Idris’s protagonist, Franklin Saint, Singleton was a teenager in the early 1980s; like Franklin, Singleton even briefly attended school in the relatively white San Fernando Valley, giving him a firsthand glimpse at how his wealthier classmates used their disposable income: on high-quality cocaine that would eventually trickle southward in the cheaper, highly addictive form of crack.

Consequently, Snowfall has been positioned as Singleton’s return to form — a series from a prestige-cable-funded auteur rooted in personal experience and expanding outward. The show overcommits to that expansion: Snowfall not only follows Franklin’s coming-of-age story, but also ripped-from-the-headlines tales like the CIA’s involvement in the drug trade and the expanding role of Mexican cartels. The show is equally distributed at three different tiers of a nascent supply chain: the intelligence agents who heedlessly flood the market, sabotaging their own country to fund antidemocratic intervention in another; the organized crime syndicate breaking into the distribution business, trying to stay one step ahead in L.A.’s underground economy; and the small-time dealer with no clue what he’s getting into. It is a massive amount of material to try to fit into 10 episodes (or even several seasons’ worth) of television.

Snowfall takes pains to set Franklin apart from the cartoons that surround him, including a psychotic Israeli kingpin straight out of Boogie Nights and a nightclub queenpin prone to bons mots like “Bitches love the Candyman.” He’s trying to help out his single mother (Michael Hyatt), a small-time landlady who spends her days chasing down even more hard-pressed tenants for paltry sums. Franklin declares that “the system is rigged” by premiere’s end; lest even that convince us of his fundamental decency, Nina Simone croons that he’s “just a soul whose intentions are good” in the first of many heavy-handed soundtrack choices. Yet Snowfall’s efforts to corral us into Franklin’s corner are so overbearing they verge on the counterproductive. Combined with the lurid ’80s excess that surrounds him — coke-fueled pool parties, gilded interiors — Franklin’s journey flirts with the worst of both worlds: didacticism and voyeurism, all in one package.

For all its flaws, however, Franklin’s story line has something Snowfall’s other major threads lack: an emotional center, with a hero whose motivations amount to more than simply “the drug trade is what he does.” Conversely, a careerist CIA agent (Carter Hudson) is deliberately off-putting — he’s there to remind us of the deep state’s evils and do little else. An ambitious cartel captain (Emily Rios) and the aspiring wrestler she recruits as an enforcer (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) are more promising, but in the early going, they’re still too flat to inspire much investment. The show fully immerses them in a complicated plot involving internal cartel politics before establishing who they are or what they want. The arc is only the most extreme example of Snowfall attempting to deliver a history lesson without building characters who make the past seem sufficiently lively.

Snowfall feels torn between two selves — the one that wants to lean fully into sensationalism and the one that wants to educate us about the genesis of a racially stigmatized public health crisis — but takes its time introducing the substance at its core. The early episodes instead focus on atmosphere, reveling in innocuous bursts of chaos like a front-yard catfight or a pissed-off evictee using a jar of rotten chicken as a stink bomb. The show also mounts a painstakingly slow buildup, introducing everything about the drug’s background and soon-to-be distribution with the methodical caution of The Wire, if not its sobriety. The awkward pacing allows the tonal confusion to take root. Does the show want us to gawk at a coke-fueled orgy ripped straight from The Wolf of Wall Street, or does it want us to shake our heads at the incentives that make a life of crime a bright young kid’s only real option for upward mobility?

Though ancillary to the show itself, Snowfall’s marketing provides a useful microcosm of just how difficult it is to hit Singleton’s desired sweet spot of nostalgia and cautionary tale. The posters juxtapose the impending onslaught of a dangerous drug with a youthful idyll of sunsets and palm trees. Late last month, FX hosted a Los Angeles pop-up “celebrating the era” with free barbecue, a custom sneaker-lacing station, and a DJ academy, even as onsite signage warned that “a storm is coming and its name is crack.” The problem lies less with the celebration — after all, Snowfall does plenty of that — than its dissonance with the attempted foreboding. Either would be a manageable sales pitch, but trying both at once is an awkward fit. There’s a reason it’s difficult to promote Snowfall in an easily digestible package: Snowfall itself tries to be so many things at once. Singleton and his collaborators have taken on an admirably massive task. An inherent risk in that undertaking, though, is that it might prove too unwieldy for even a sprawling series to have a handle on right from the start.