FX's new drama Snowfall offers an ambitious take on the rise crack cocaine that sees its various storylines fall short of their grand aspirations.
With its period drama trappings and sprawling, multi-character cast, each with their own complex, intersecting storyline revolving around the prestige TV-ensnaring tagline of "How crack began," you might think that FX's newest drama Snowfall had aspirations of following in the footsteps of David Simon's The Wire, tracking the social, political, and economic circumstances swirling around a culture-shifting drug epidemic. And while all of those elements are present and accounted for in various – mostly superficial – ways in the first hour (critics have seen the entire first season), the new series from executive producer John Singleton offers a story that, in its early goings, hews closer to Scarface than The Wire.
At its heart, Snowfall is a story about ambition. Every one of its characters is on a quest for power that takes them deeper into the world of drug dealers, cartels, and shady government sanctioned cocaine distribution. But for all the ambition of its subjects, the series never seems to greet their aspirations with the concentrated story to match. Television is the ideal place for a drama as expansive and potentially dense as tracking the rise of crack cocaine from its infancy, and Singleton, along with co-creators Dave Andron and Eric Amadio, take pains to establish a set of overlapping narratives filled with distinct characters in order to make that story as compelling and comprehensive as possible. As the season progresses, though, and moves deeper into the world its so eager to explore, Snowfall's own lofty ambitions gradually begin to level out at a presenting a fairly rote, sporadically entertaining crime drama.
The first few episodes take a focused approach to the daunting account, peering into a massive narrative through a trio of storylines, each with their own specific cultural, and socio-economic perspective that puts the characters' similar motivations in different lights. The strongest of the three is that of Franklin Saint (Damson Idris), a well-educated, hard-working kid in 1983 South Central with designs on making a name for himself, and who seizes an opportunity to start slinging cocaine after a chance encounter with an unhinged Israeli drug kingpin named Avi Drexler (Alon Moni Aboutboul). Franklin's naiveté and belief he can game the system while keeping his hands clean give this particular thread a twinge of tragedy that's either not nearly as pronounced in the other narratives or is absent altogether.
Running parallel to Franklin's story are the dual narratives of Gustavo Zapata (Sergio Peris-Mencheta), a Mexican wrestler who joins up with Lucia Villenueva (Emily Rios) and her cousin Pedro Nava (Filipe Valle Costa), as they look to branch out from their crime lord family into business for themselves. Connecting the two threads is CIA operative Teddy McDonald (Carter Hudson), who begins running an off-book operation to fund Nicaraguan Contras with the help of Alejandro Usteves (Juan Javier Cárdenas), a charismatic soldier with an agenda all his own. Each thread is potentially dense enough to afford the series a number of storytelling avenues to explore from one episode to the next, and for the writers to find interesting ways of balancing thematic similarities across a seemingly diverse set of experiences, motivations, and viewpoints, especially when it comes to criminality and the inevitable violence that accompanies these kinds of stories. Yet in an effort to get Franklin, Teddy, Gustavo, and Lucia in a place where their narratives begin to converge and collide with one another – over the illicit white powder – Snowfall moves too hastily off the starting line, asking its characters to run before it has determined whether or not they can walk.
In a sense, the series seems to be in conflict with itself in terms of the kind of show it wants to be. Cocaine is the underpinning element of the various narratives with the implication being Snowfall has designs on tracing multiple lines of coke from dealer to buyer, demonstrating how corrosive the substance is and how the legal, political, and social response to it is perhaps equally caustic. Strangely, though, the series is less concerned with conducting an investigation on the drug's impact on the culture, and is instead much more intent on demonstrating the corruptive influence it can bring on an individual basis. The result, then, is a program that touts itself as "How crack began" and is instead an account of several people's Walter White-like rise to power – or not – in tandem with and because of the proliferation of a destructive, highly addictive substance.
Placing an emphasis on the individuals making and selling the drugs, rather than taking a more distanced, clinical look at the cultural or societal impact, leads Snowfall down some predictable paths that lead the already eccentric Avi to become a somewhat cartoonish amalgam of Tony Montana and Robert Evans. It also sets Franklin and Teddy's stories to similarly familiar beats that have them enter into one moral quandary after another in the hope of answering the call of their professional ambitions. In the pilot episode, Franklin remarks his goal is to have "freedom". It's an admirable, high-reaching but nebulously defined goal that, so long as it's not poked at too much, provides both the character and the show just enough of a cohesive philosophy to remain engaging.
In its early going, and especially as the season progresses, Snowfall feels similar to FX's underappreciated adaptation of The Bridge, itself another sprawling, multicultural investigation of the impact of the drug trade. That series had – in its second season, under the guidance of showrunner Elwood Reid, anyway – a much firmer grasp on the sway cocaine has on specific corners of society. That series didn't find itself until season 2, and by that time it was too late – the already small audience had completely evaporated. Watching Snowfall, you get the sense that it too would benefit from a similar refocusing and tightening of its structure, so long as such an opportunity comes it way.
Though Snowfall falls short of putting its various story threads into focus and weaving them into a totally cohesive overarching narrative, it makes up for it by being a visually striking series with plenty of strong performances, from Idris to the always-reliable Rios (Breaking Bad, The Bridge), and especially Michael Hyatt, who plays Cissy Saint, Franklin's mother. It's not the next Wire (or the next Scarface, for that matter), but Snowfall is a compelling enough drama to continue watching through the summer.
Snowfall continues next Wednesday with 'Make Them Birds Fly' @10pm on FX.
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