'Snowfall' Misses The Mark As It Strives For Broader Picture Of Crack Epidemic In 1980s L.A.

According to FX's Snowfall, 1980s Los Angeles consists of certain concrete images; a black teenager who works at a Korean liquor store; a CIA operative who works to back anti-communist militaries; lines of cocaine, in its powdery white glory, shooting up the noses of anyone who can afford it; lowriders driving down Crenshaw; overly saturated shots of palm trees lining the residential streets. This type of era-based synecdoche aims to conjure an entire world with parts of its whole. The liquor store exists to remind us of Korean-Black racial tensions that existed before the 1992 riots; the CIA operative is in South America to remind us of America’s covert manipulations. The show uses iconography and Wikipedia bullet points to form the skeleton of its world, but in so doing, it reduces the show to far less than the sum of its parts.

What Snowfall overlooks is that an era comes from the people who built it; instead of paying the show's characters their due respect, it repurposes their actions as commentary on a time period, effectively turning the people into pawns as a way to explain “how crack began.” The characters become tools for a slow-moving narrative that flits from vignette to vignette, never reaching deep enough into either the characters or the world they inhabit, leaving the show lifeless.

It's a misstep for John Singleton, the show’s creator, executive producer, and writer of the pilot, who made history with Boyz n the Hood back in 1991. Singleton was the youngest person to ever be nominated for a Best Director award at the Oscars, and was the first black man to receive the nomination. It was (and still is) rare to see South Central grace the screen with that level of care and intimacy. The film was incredible for its portrayal of the era and location; it understood that its source of pathos came from the characters —Tre, Doughboy, Ricky, Furious, and others—and the way South Central influenced how the men related to one another.

Where Boyz n the Hood was respectful, Snowfall is condescending. The show dips its toe into historical relativism, giving equal weight to both storylines involving the government-funded operations and the communities trying to navigate oppression, without going beyond the surface details or making an original statement about the characters. The communication between the CIA operative and his Nicaraguan partner could have been lifted from any generic crime show. Snowfall wants us to believe that the words have real stakes attached to them, but they fall limp. Ultimately the show presents the crack epidemic as a role-playing game with few far-reaching consequences.

The overarching message also comes off as superficial. One of the characters is Franklin Saint (Damson Idris), a 19-year-old black man who lives with his single mom and works at the aforementioned liquor store. At the end of the pilot, his girlfriend asks what he’s actually aiming for, considering he decided not to go to college. “Freedom," he responds. This is echoed in the opening of the second episode, which starts with Nina Simone singing "Feeling Good": “Birds flyin’ high / you know how I feel.” Snowfall presents freedom from poverty and its crushing hopelessness as motivation for the crack cocaine epidemic. The claim has its merits, certainly, but the show presents it in very broad strokes, giving us no real sense of the urgency involved.

When the show does manage to succeed, it happens in stripped-down moments. Some involve literal nudity, like when a group of Israeli drug lords forces everyone to take off all their clothes, leaving on nothing but their underwear, to confirm that no one's wearing a wire. Others involve the stripping down of preconceived notions of a character, like when Franklin joins his mom on her job, and we learn that her “responsible” gig involves acting as the middleman between a slumlord and his poor tenants. In these moments, the characters feel exposed and unsettled, participating in unintentional absurdity. As if mimicking the effects of cocaine, these jittery moments move the characters’ out of their safety zone, pushing the show towards real urgency. In such instances Snowfall isn’t just painting a historical tableau.

Idris shines as Franklin, deftly navigating between naïveté and sobering encounters with mortality. Most of the other actors stumble awkwardly through their scenes, though. Emily Rios plays Lucia Villanueva, a young woman who is expanding her father’s drug empire, and while she manages to bring both softness and power to her role, she still feels like a shadow among people. Carter Hudson plays Teddy McDonald, the CIA agent, whose frustration, fear, and motivational conflict around prioritizing the CIA over his nascent family are profoundly unconvincing.

The show gets progressively more compelling after a few episodes, but even the best moments don't justify the bumbling path it took to get there.

Snowfall premieres July 5 at 10 p.m. on FX.

Note: An earlier version of this story improperly identified Ronnie Hudson And The Street People's 1982 single “West Coast Poplock” as "California Love." "California Love" samples "West Coast Poplock." We apologize for the error.