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‘Snowfall’ Is Becoming Can’t-Miss TV

FX’s tale of the rise of crack on the streets of South Central L.A. in the 1980s got off to a slow start, but now in its fourth season, it’s one of the most underrated shows on television

FX/Ringer illustration

The harsh reality of Snowfall plays out in the third season’s title cards: Each episode, the aerial shot of South Central Los Angeles grows darker and more chaotic. Snowfall was originally billed as the story of “how crack began”—the connections between the CIA and the drug’s explosion on the streets of South Central during the 1980s—but there’s always been something deeper at its core. What the FX drama, which returned for its fourth season last week, is truly focused on is the transformation of a community—the ways the crack epidemic ravaged neighborhoods and the lives of the people who resided in them.

Loosely inspired by the exploits of “Freeway” Rick Ross, Snowfall’s first three seasons told the story of a bright young man with limited options and a burning desire for independence that led him to start selling crack. Blinded by the pursuit of a better life, he set his world ablaze while a CIA operative used the money from their dealings to support anti-Communist efforts in Nicaragua. Snowfall flashed potential during its first season, but didn’t hit its stride until it explored the human toll of the drug trade during its second. Its lead, Franklin Saint (Damson Idris), has since made the one-eighty from former prom king to kingpin. “As moral as he is at the beginning, that strong sense of morality starts to get whittled away,” cocreator John Singleton, who died in 2019, told me ahead of the show’s premiere in 2017. Now, by the beginning of Season 4, Franklin’s killed a friend and a father figure, and survived a shooting that left him walking with a cane—a reminder of the results of his actions. “He understands that he can’t make mistakes because the whole organization’s going to have to deal with the consequences,” Idris says. “His family’s going to have to deal with the consequences.” But even after being confronted with his mortality and becoming more calculated, Franklin’s ambition has him taking risks that leave him vulnerable to threats on both sides of the law. On top of that, selling drugs on behalf of the U.S. government isn’t exactly a sustainable venture.

For all of Snowfall’s insight and narrative growth, however, it has largely flown under the critical and commercial radar (despite finding its way onto Pusha T’s, to little surprise). But rather than chasing ratings or acclaim, Snowfall has found a niche within a crowded TV landscape and developed a cult following by highlighting the collateral damage of something that’s shaped modern society. A narrowed focus, increased drama, and quicker pace have quietly made it one of the best shows on TV. But if Snowfall’s first three seasons weren’t argument enough that the show deserves a wider audience, Season 4 demands your attention. The show has flirted with the crash-and-burn possibility of selling drugs since its first season, but now it’s careening toward inevitability. “There could be a point in future seasons where we take our foot off the gas a little bit, but this is not that season,” showrunner and executive producer Dave Andron says with a laugh. It’s not just that the worst scenarios for the characters are the best for the show, it’s about the journey to those moments and their cascading aftereffects. For years, Snowfall has been the best show you aren’t watching—now it’s blossoming into something you can’t miss.

Like most shows forced to work around COVID-19, the circumstances surrounding the production of Snowfall’s fourth season were extraordinary. The show began filming in February 2020 and got halfway through the fourth episode when the world came to a screeching halt in the middle of March. “We were like, ‘Oh boy, if the NBA just shut down, we’re in trouble,’” Andron recalls. What was projected as a two-week pause lasted for nearly six months. After prepping for a return during July and August, Snowfall resumed production in September and filmed through the end of January following a brief holiday recess. Perhaps the lone upside to the pandemic was the time it gave Andron to revisit and revise the scripts. “I was able to look at all the cuts, take all the scripts, and completely dig in and rewrite,” Andron says. The result is a sharper, more urgent body of work.

The bulk of the new season is set in 1985 following President Ronald Reagan’s reelection. The Reagan administration’s “War on Drugs” is escalating, as is the sweeping corruption within the LAPD and the gang wars in South Central. All of the above are bad for business, which Franklin is eager to return to post-recovery, but he soon discovers the division that’s arisen within his organization. His parents, Cissy (Michael Hyatt) and Alton (Kevin Carroll), want to keep him as far away from the streets as possible; his aunt, Louie (Angela Lewis), has stepped up to run the day-to-day with begrudging aid from his uncle, Jerome (Amin Joseph); Leon (Isaiah John), his closest remaining friend, has grown tired of his middle-management role. “In reality, Franklin knows that things can’t be how they once were,” Idris says.

Franklin foolishly intervenes in the violent conflict between Skully (De’aundre Bonds), an erratic Blood, and Manboy (Melvin Gregg), an untrustworthy Crip. His ability to compartmentalize has propelled his operation, but he realizes that he can’t rationalize his actions if a situation he facilitated spirals out of control. “There’s no controlling that, but Franklin has huge control issues,” Andron says. Franklin’s main objective this season is ending his arrangement with shifty CIA operative Teddy McDonald (Carter Hudson), a.k.a. “Reed Thompson.” “He feels like a slave to the CIA and he’s starting to realize that although he can use them for resources, he’s also working with the devil,” Idris says. Franklin dreams of laundering the money into legitimate businesses and stepping away without doing further damage.

Kevin Carroll, Damson Idris, and Michael Hyatt in ‘Snowfall’

Starting a real estate business and expanding their investment portfolio has been great for Franklin and Cissy’s relationship, despite her feelings about the money’s origin. “I think there’s always the tug-of-war within her knowing, deep in her being, that this goes against the grain of who she is and constantly riding that roller coaster of feeling empowered and being able to run a family business and living in the power that she’s always wanted to live in, but at what cost?” Hyatt says. Eventually, she begins to see that there’s little difference between their actions and what her old boss—who dumped the responsibility of evicting his Black tenants squarely upon her shoulders—was doing.

At the same time, Franklin and Cissy’s endeavors place them in direct conflict with what Alton, a former Black Panther and recovering alcoholic, is doing at the shelter he runs, even though it’s funded by the same source. For Franklin, who fashions himself as more of a businessman than a drug dealer, the business keeps his parents close to him and provides something he’s gone much of his life without: a nuclear family. He’s determined to maintain a sense of unity throughout his organization, even as the nature of the business puts a strain on other relationships.

Over the course of Snowfall’s run, Franklin and Leon’s relationship has moved from friendship to boss and subordinate—which chafes Leon’s ego, considering Franklin admired his juvenile-delinquent edge when they were younger. “He wants to grow in the business, but really wants to be a boss in his own right because he felt like while Franklin was down, he had to take over the projects,” John says. It’s not envy, because Leon doesn’t want to be Franklin—he just wants the respect he feels entitled to after what they’ve been through together. In Season 2, Leon was the one teaching Franklin. “When you leave here, go back in that dorm, grab the first n---- you see and beat the FUCK outta that n----,” he instructs a battered Franklin during his stint in jail. By Season 3, Franklin was scolding Leon: “I built this shit! Me, brick by brick, and I’ll be damned if I let you tear it down just ‘cause you don’t like the way another n---- talk!

Both scenes are instances in which the characters say what the audience is thinking, but the first was a turning point for Franklin. He’s hardened by his stint in jail and grows substantially more cutthroat, as evidenced in the latter scene. “Franklin sees that as an opportunity to put him in line, and in Season 4, that relationship is now moving into conflict and competition,” Idris says. And while they butt heads, unforeseen developments threaten to jeopardize everything.

Snowfall’s fourth season introduces the media’s quest to uncover the truth about crack’s presence in South Central. Irene Abe (Suzy Nakamura), an investigative reporter, begins prying into Franklin’s life and possible ties to the CIA. According to Andron, this was a salute to Gary Webb’s flawed-but-important work in his “Dark Alliance” series, which examined the link between the CIA and crack’s spread to great controversy, but also journalists as truth-seekers (and troublemakers) in the show’s search for a moral center. “It felt like we were at a point in America over the last four years where there were a lot of attacks on the media,” he says. “I think it was nice for us to try and remind that there are good people out there who are just trying to tell the story and expose these evils.” Still, it’s also worth considering how much Irene’s quest for the truth is self-serving.

Hardly anyone’s hands are clean at this point, but what can’t get lost in all of it is the reality of the government’s culpability. Teddy is Snowfall’s proxy for the government; Andron knows that the audience isn’t particularly fond of him, noting that they shouldn’t be. “He represents the system that has these bigger geopolitical goals in mind and doesn’t care that that’s at the expense of its own citizens,” Andron says. Even though many of the show’s characters are either directly involved or adjacent to an assortment of criminal activity, the corrupt system Teddy represents all but guarantees that the marginalized people in South Central will face the harshest ramifications.

Damson Idris and Melvin Gregg in ‘Snowfall’

The War on Drugs accelerated mass incarceration in the United States; part of Snowfall’s aim is to depict how the foundations were laid for our current, broken society. This places the show at the forefront of a trend in American pop culture. “We’ve got all these movies that are about looking back at key moments between Black folks and white authority,” NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says. “Judas and the Black Messiah is a good example; even BlacKkKlansman is a good example. We’re at a point where we’re ready to go back and really interrogate these moments.”

During Snowfall’s hiatus, Hyatt says the uprisings in light of the killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and so many other Black Americans at the hands of police—in addition to a pandemic that exposed gross inequality across racial and socioeconomic lines—forced everyone involved with the show to consider its relevance. “You can’t take the journey that happened in South Central out of the story of systemic oppression,” she says. “You cannot take it out of the story of social justice, because it’s all one.” That ethos guided the completion of Snowfall’s fourth season. But where other shows might have to adjust or, worse, reach to “address the moment,” Snowfall does so by simply telling its story. It’s placed its characters in a pressure-cooker environment where they’re trapped by the very thing they convinced themselves would set them free. And that’s only made the show better.

Part of the reason Snowfall has improved each season—aside from moving faster—is because the narrative has been streamlined. The writers initially burned ample screen time trying to weave between Franklin’s drug-dealer 101 adventures in South Central, Teddy funneling weapons and drug money into the Contra affair in Nicaragua, and a Mexican crime family’s tension in East L.A., which Andron acknowledges was too ambitious a task out of the gate. “It felt a little cumbersome trying to do this three-headed monster with all these characters,” he admits. “It felt like they were doing a lot to try and make the story feel less predictable or like you were getting more out of it,” Deggans says.

The slow start with a largely unknown cast might have inhibited Snowfall’s potential to reach a larger audience, but now that that cast has grown into their roles—and after Andron et al. made the wise decision to spend most of their time in South Central—the show has matured into something with the potential to have a greater impact in the long run. “I remember when we were filming The Wire, there was this feeling that it wasn’t getting the attention that it should have in the moment,” says Hyatt, who played Brianna Barksdale. “And once people caught up with it, they were so enamored. But it took a while and I think this is the same thing.”

Although The Wire aired during a different era of television and had a different trajectory than Snowfall, they are two shows that have certainly benefited from cable networks understanding their value and giving them room to grow—which is far from guaranteed in television. It’s almost miraculous that FX has been this patient; Andron is grateful that the network didn’t rush Snowfall’s creators to introduce crack sooner, granting them the latitude to tell the story as they saw fit. The result is what Singleton would have wanted. He dedicated his life to telling stories about Black people, particularly those in South Central, and Snowfall’s account of what crack did to the area adds to that legacy.

What’s more, Snowfall may have more eyes on it this season as a result of FX’s deal with Hulu, which made it available for bingeing just ahead of the pandemic. “I think the expectation is that Snowfall is a much bigger, noisier show this year because of that,” Andron says. But that’s less of a priority than chronicling how crack changed the people who came in contact with it, which Snowfall has become very good at doing. “By Season 3, people made the decision: ‘OK, this is the best show I want to watch,’” Idris says. “And now, when Season 4 hasn’t even dropped yet, people will straight up walk up to me on the street and say, ‘Yo, you’re on the hottest show in the world. How does that feel?’ And I’m like: ‘Wait until you see Season 4.’”

Julian Kimble has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Undefeated, GQ, Billboard, Pitchfork, The Fader, SB Nation, and many more.