Hasn’t TV OD’d on drug dramas yet? I know I have. From The Wire to Better Call Saul and every dime-bag-dealing drama in between, I’ve taken in enough smoke and blow to make me ready for rehab. At this point, even the best-intentioned treatments of the drug trade — the ones that aspire to tell us something about race, class, or American materialism — still perpetuate stereotypes and romanticize nihilism. The subject matter remains relevant; television needs to find fresher ways to light it up.
I’m not sure FX’s Snowfall is the show to do that. It wants to be a big-saga historical fiction chronicling the origins of the early-’80s crack epidemic in Los Angeles. For now, it’s a good-looking collection of clichés, dull sensationalism, and echoes of better pulp. Franklin, played by Damson Idris, is the ostensible center. A brainy and boyish black man educated at white schools, he sports preppie collared shirts suggesting super-responsible squareness. In truth, he’s bringing home dough for his single mom (Michael Hyatt) by peddling weed in his South Central neighborhood, and is looking to make more by selling coke obtained from Israeli expat Avi (Alon Moni Aboutboul), a decadently eccentric nutjob. He parades around in his undies, he uses champagne bottles for bowling pins, he shoots people for pumped-up kicks. He should be scary. Instead, he’s amusing. This is a problem.
Franklin’s story recasts the coming-of-age yarn of Boyz N the Hood — written and directed by Snowfall co-creator John Singleton — into Breaking Bad serial. His journey is an increasingly violent, damning descent into the underworld (he gets assaulted; he witnesses a sadistic rape; he’s tempted to kill) that tests his resolve and character, but to superficial effect. Franklin comes to the old what have I become? crossroads in episode 4, well directed by Hiro Murai (Atlanta). But by episode 6, he’s back to slinging, for a simple reason — he’s gotta keep earning — but the writing and performance don’t make it interesting. You feel Franklin does what he does because there’d be no show if he didn’t.
Snowfall‘s other stories mirror Franklin’s arc, and they’re mixed bags too. Lucia (Emily Rios) and her cousin Pedro (Filipe Valle Costa) are young bucks in a Mexican crime family pulling a scam to assert themselves as coke dealers. Their struggles are persuasive, but their quiet enforcer, Gustavo (an excellent Sergio Peris-Mencheta), a former Mexican wrestler, is the best character. He’s a moribund mound of muscular pudge who blossoms to life as he gets dirtier and draws closer to Lucia. Their tale intersects with another that helps frame the show’s sociopolitical worldview. Teddy (Carter Hudson) is a CIA operative eager to get a derailed career back on track with a black op: selling coke to Americans to fund commie-fighting rebels in Nicaragua. Teddy, played with wit and puppy-dog eyes by Hudson, is a bunch of tics designed to beard a queasy protagonist with likability. All these plots work together to sketch a history lesson showing how cocaine morphed from a rich white person’s drug to the cheap crack that decimated poor minority communities. This is important to know. But Snowfall itself isn’t important, not yet — it’s a just-okay crime drama about people selling out everything sacred, just to say “Ain’t that America?” Let me know when it gets more dope.