Though its focus is on the early days of the crack-cocaine epidemic in 1980s South Central L.A., the true subject of FX’s Snowfall is entrepreneurship. To be specific, the series chronicles the desperate, dangerous, and wildly illegal lengths that minorities were often pushed toward taking to build up any kind of wealth under President Ronald Reagan and the watchful, lethal gaze of the LAPD. As such, Snowfall is also an indictment of capitalism and a government that willingly enabled the spread of drug addiction in black neighborhoods to fund a guerrilla war while also extolling nonsensical and almost proudly hypocritical domestic drug policies. It is not meant to be a lite watch.
And yet, by the end of the pilot episode, it’s already clear that something is missing from the story of Franklin Saint (Damson Idris), the bookish twenty-something at the center of the show. Co-creator John Singleton, along with Dave Andron and Eric Amadio, sets up Franklin as a cautionary tale from early on, symbolized in his swift move from selling dime bags of Kush for his eccentric uncle, Jerome (scene-stealer Amin Joseph), to peddling crack-cocaine to high-end brothels and the neighborhood fiends. To even secure a kilo of cocaine from an unhinged Israeli kingpin, Avi (Alon Aboutboul), he must lie, make tenuous promises, and put his life on the line, just to set up a network. His sin is that of ambition and the series sets up the rote moral “lessons” to be learned from this folly in a familiar scene where Jerome warns Franklin of the trouble that comes with pushing powder.
Singleton has been here before. The director’s best work — Boyz n the Hood, Poetic Justice, and Baby Boy — are set in the same neighborhoods as Snowfall, and they too take a look at the circumstances that lead young, black, and talented people to abandon their potential in favor of easy fixes or criminal behavior. Franklin’s apparent business acumen and intelligence didn’t help him escape alienation amongst the white children of the West Coast elites and led him toward dope dealing in a similar way to how Janet Jackson‘s Justice turned away from professional schooling and poetry in the aftermath of the gangland shooting of her boyfriend in Poetic Justice. If nothing else, Singleton and his creative team give an encompassing and occasionally riveting view of how unsupported black talent can drive young men and women into life-threatening situations where they are willing to sacrifice their bodies and the health of their community for something like liberation.
Would that the show’s creative team had stuck with this storyline primarily and filled out the world a bit more, allowed the characters to breath and express a whole range of emotions rather than the ones that just help guide along the plot. Instead, they go for cinematic scope and a largely unconvincing we’re-all-in-this-together structure by also following the lives of the C.I.A. agent who helps supply the cocaine to Avi and the Latin American connects that help with management, transport, and distribution. The series packs in enough story to both keep viewers involved and look democratic in representing a variety of ethnicities and ages, but little of what goes on with disgraced company man Teddy (Carter Hudson) or Emily Rios‘ Lucia, an important connect between Teddy and Avi, sports the infectious intimacy that can be felt in Franklin’s storyline. The narrative is ambitiously broad but allows for very little depth outside of Franklin’s life, rendering much of the narrative at once involving and innocuous.
Late in the pilot, Franklin spots his derelict father roaming on the streets while catching a ride from his aunt. He sees him clearly, but we don’t. We just see a figure outfitted in grubby clothes, shuffling along the crosswalk and over to the sidewalk. And when Franklin’s aunt implores him to go speak to him, he refuses. It’s the most haunting and memorable scene in the season’s first half by a mile, and begins to confront the uglier side of Franklin’s drive. His nightmare is to become his father and to let down his dutiful mother (Michael Hyatt), but he seems to be perfectly okay with ensuring that his neighbors and close friends will become as depleted, hopeless, and alienated as his pops.
The series deserves more sequences like this, scenes and images that cut to the root of the characters without telegraphing their entire meaning through dialogue. And though it might come up later in the series, the fact that we don’t fully witness what Franklin went through in the upper echelons of white society puts the audience at a distance from his unsettling behavior as a budding drug dealer and would-be entrepreneur. There are allusions to the same kind of emotional calcifying in Franklin as there are in Walter White, but whereas we witnessed the full breadth of White’s desperation and embarrassment before he became Heisenberg, Franklin is already emotionally removed to a noticeable degree when we meet him. We never are forced to reckon with how white society pushes black talent out of their exclusive circle, on purpose or otherwise.
This is all to say that Snowfall is a better written show than it is a visual show, a grand, tragic story that is admirably inclusive but struggles to reach a personal level. Underneath Snowfall‘s sprawling plot are untold amounts of stories of marginalized men and women destroyed by the promise of capitalism to save them from situations often caused directly by the (largely white) capitalists in power, most notably the President. (It’s not surprising that when Franklin gets his first big pay-off, he buys a motorcycle off of a local and the camera hangs pointedly on the Honda brand name.) And yet, for all the very real anger, horror, resentment, and sadness that bubbles up underneath FX’s latest drama series in spurts, the series can often come off as a well-written Wikipedia page rather than the furious political drama that it clearly means to be.
Rating: ★★★ Good – Proceed with cautious optimism
Snowfall airs on Tuesday nights at 10 p.m. on FX.