'Snowfall': TV Review

May be a hard sell in the Peak TV era.
7/5/2017

FX's sprawling new drama from John Singleton, about the start of the Los Angeles crack epidemic, isn't compelling or convincing enough in the early going.

Snowfall, the latest drama from FX, aims to get at "how crack began" and how the drug epidemic shook up Los Angeles — but after four episodes the series hadn't gotten there yet, nor even close, but it did take up at least three different storylines using a vast and diverse cast in an attempt to set the stage for what, apparently, will be coming later.

Unfortunately, what's already here in 2017 is a very serious epidemic of Peak TV, and it's a dangerous game to play for a series to take its time getting to what its premise is supposed to be — particularly if the aimlessness in question isn't particularly compelling.

Snowfall is set in Los Angeles in 1983 and follows the slow descent of a nice young kid, dubiously named Franklin Saint (Damson Idris), who goes from being concerned that neighbor kids were stealing ice cream to getting in rather quickly with an Israeli cocaine crime boss and selling the product in the 'hood. Part of the early problem with Snowfall is that, while it might be trying to show us how one good kid goes bad and (eventually) helps bring crack to his neighborhood (and, one would assume, the spiraling addiction, crime and police kickback associated with it), Franklin's fall from grace isn't entirely believable; he doesn't seem like he would have it in him to do what he does here, nor does he seem convincingly good at it.

In fact, as Snowfall immediately tries to tell three complex stories at once, none of the major players in any of those stories seems particularly capable of doing what they're doing here, which heightens the antsy factor as viewers wait for the bigger picture to reveal itself. Pacing, in addition to plausibility, is a huge problem here.

There's Lucia Villanueva (Emily Rios), the daughter of a Mexican crime lord looking to move into the burgeoning cocaine business, and Teddy McDonald (Carter Hudson), a CIA operative who has been shipped from the East Coast to Los Angeles because of some mysterious past mistake of his. When an undercover CIA agent gets a little too involved in the cocaine business (which in turn will pay for guns and money to send to the Contras in Nicaragua as they battle the Sandinistas), Teddy steps in to run things. But Teddy, Lucia and Franklin never give viewers the sense, after four hours, that any of them will accomplish their respective mission. It seems much likelier that they'll end up dead.

It's entirely possible that John Singleton, Eric Amadio and Dave Andron, the creators of Snowfall, either fell in love with the controversial book Dark Alliance by journalist Gary Webb, dove deep into the machinations of the Iran-Contra scandal or got hooked on the idea of chronicling the genesis of the crack problem in Los Angeles (perhaps all three?). In any case, it feels, in the early going at least, that the ambition is too much.

Because it's not just those three main players that Snowfall focuses on, but myriad people around each of them. By telling bits of the story involving those additional characters, Snowfall never seems to get around to the actual story of crack. Most series that get by despite complicated storylines or a lagging pace do so with top-tier writing and standout performances. At this point, Snowfall isn't there yet, but Idris does a fine job as Franklin, while several other supporting players steal the spotlight, including Michael Hyatt as Franklin's straitlaced mother, Amin Joseph as Franklin's conflicted uncle and Juan Javier Cardenas as a Nicaraguan Contra working with the CIA. The other parts of Snowfall may come together in time, but after four meandering and sometimes confusing hours, it's easy to lose interest. And if this series is not addictive after four hours, with all the competition it faces, will it ever be?

Created and executive produced by: John Singleton, Eric Amadio, Dave Andron

Additional executive producers: Thomas Schlamme, Michael London, Trevor Engelson

Cast: Damson Idris, Sergio Peris-Mencheta, Carter Hudson, Emily Rios, Michael Hyatt, Amin Joseph, Angela Lewis, Isaiah John, Alon Moni Aboutboul, Filipe Valle Costa, Malcolm Mays

Pilot directed by: Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah

Wednesdays, starting July 5, 10 p.m., on FX

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