Three episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
There’s nothing inherently bad about FX’s new drug drama Snowfall. As an opening sentence to a review, that’s not exactly a good omen, but such middling thoughts couldn’t help but bubble to the surface in the three hours I spent watching the original cocaine empire blossom haphazardly out of the sun-soaked streets of south central Los Angeles. It’s got a good lead, a solid premise, and legitimately gorgeous cinematography that lovingly lingers on the palm tree-lined streets of 1983 LA like they’re a fresco in the Sistine Chapel.
No, there’s nothing really bad about Snowfall. It’s just that the network it calls home has raised the bar to such a degree that a show turning out just “good” feels disappointing in comparison. Snowfall has a decent narrative, but it lacks daring; there are a few interesting characters, but they never surprise; cliffhangers pop up, but they fumble at generating addiction. All of the qualities for a gangbusters drama are here, but they never rise above passable execution. It’s all economical without being exciting, and in today’s glut of television, “good” just isn’t good enough.
Early on, lead character Franklin (Damson Idris) gives an optimistic glimpse into Snowfall‘s later stories. Navigating south central LA as best he can, Franklin finds himself helping out with the weed-dealing business of his uncle Jerome (Amin Joseph) and aunt Louise (Angela Lewis, a bright spot in the cast). The family business is bolstered slightly by Franklin’s contacts in the more affluent neighborhoods after his stint in an uppity, mostly-white high school in the valley.
Everything flows over him with a cool ease, so much so that when one of his valley friends asks him to be the heavy in a coke deal, Franklin jokes, “Sure, I’ll be the black guy, I’m always the black guy.” Idris instills Franklin with an engaging, forceful outlook on life, who nevertheless recognizes the humor in most situations, but the ultimate question mark on Snowfall is the dramatic irony of the incoming cocaine epidemic.
Although the show is still young, Franklin’s arc from chasing youngsters down for stealing from an ice cream truck to — presumably — a major player in the cocaine crises of the 80s, is distractingly non-believable. Idris is charismatic throughout, but the writing lays out a broad Breaking Bad-lite hero’s decent into hell ahead of him, which only becomes more ludicrous, and less engaging, the more it trucks along.
As he becomes entangled with a local Israeli coke dealer named Avi (Alon Aboutboul), Snowfall bounces between a series of supremely less interesting stories: one of a disgraced CIA officer, Teddy (Carter Hudson), trying to prove his worth by tracking down the rise of the cocaine empire in LA; one of a down-on-his-luck luchador, Gustavo, (Sergio Peris-Mencheta), questioning the lengths he’ll go to in joining a local cartel; and one of the daughter of a Mexican crime lord, Lucia (Emily Rios), who sees coke as a major addition to the family business. They’re all melancholy and dreary enterprises without the glint of a sense of humor that Idris lends the main story.
Unfortunately, they take up a lot of the runtime of Snowfall‘s opening hours, and although their divergent storylines begin hinting at a convergence coming later down the line, the show’s biggest problem out of the gate is failing to make you want to wait around for that to happen. There are upticks in excitement, like when Franklin has to initially prove his worth to the local big-wig coke dealer in order to earn his first kilo, but show creators John Singleton, Eric Amadio, and Dave Andron can’t keep the tension going. For a series about a teenager entering one of the deadliest businesses in the world, in one of the hardest neighborhoods, Snowfall is disappointingly toothless.
It also doesn’t help when the show stirs echoes of previous television and movies with similar themes. Franklin’s rabbit hole spiral down into the cocaine underworld compares easily with Boogie Nights on multiple occasions, while Teddy’s obsessive disgraced officer shtick echoes broadly across the singular, episodic police procedurals that have come out post-The Killing, including FX’s own short-lived The Bridge. A brief scene that branches across the paths of all the characters while a remix of Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” plays in the background even resurfaces a memory of this year’s Marvel/FX team-up-slash-mind-fuck Legion.
All of that would be less noticeable if Snowfall had a bit more panache, but far too often the writing and the staging of certain high-drama scenes fumbles the pacing even more. The show balances a decent amount of wit and spark on the shoulders of Idris, but when he’s not around some dramatic scenes turn weirdly comical on a dime, and it’s never clear whether it was done on purpose or not. It’s an inconsistent, but not out-and-out terrible tone that falls into the theme of pretty much every other aspect of Snowfall — it’s not bad, it’s just a bit generic and not particularly engaging.
It’s that generic undertone that seeps most into all of Snowfall‘s cracks. When Franklin returns from his school in the valley, he’s been enlightened to a truth that’s undeniably topical to this day: “I tried to do things the right way, went to the other side and you know what I learned? The game’s rigged. It ain’t meant for people like us.” Despite its period setting, Snowfall‘s themes are relevant and buoyed by its mostly black cast, but it doesn’t find a new and interesting angle to take on something we’ve seen 100 times before. “So you know what, I’m rewriting the rules,” Franklin decides later on in the show’s pilot. If only Snowfall itself had the guts to do the same.
A magnetic central performance and gorgeous cinematography help alleviate Snowfall’s largely generic drug drama, but not much else in the first three hours even comes close to opening a gateway to addiction.