The heart of Snowfall, John Singleton’s new FX series about the origins of the crack epidemic, is Franklin Saint (Damson Idris), a smart, kindhearted teenager who takes care of his mother, keeps the neighborhood kids in line, works nights in a bodega, and sells weed on the side for his uncle Jerome (Amin Joseph). One day, a white friend from his fancy high school in the Valley recruits Franklin to procure more cocaine for his pool party. “You afraid to go get it, so send a black guy, right?” Franklin says, quizzically. “I’ll be the black guy. Shit, I’m always the black guy.” Which is how he finds himself in the house of a comical Israeli cocaine dealer (Andrew Howard) who only sells in bulk. And senses an opportunity.
Snowfall is full of moments like this—scenes and interludes that attempt to put the complex racial and geopolitical dynamics of the 1980s drug trade in context. Franklin is just one of a revolving cast of characters who see the growing enthusiasm for cocaine in the U.S. as a way to further their own ambitions, while staying willfully blind to the consequences. There’s Teddy McDonald (Carter Hudson), a disgraced CIA agent who gets involved in an off-the-books operation with Nicaraguan Contras to try and resurrect his career. And Lucia (Emily Rios), the niece of a drug lord who stages a robbery to fund her own business. In its sprawling consideration of the many different players who kickstarted an epidemic, Snowfall ticks all the boxes of a prestige drug drama. But its characters often feel like ciphers, generic stand-ins for the various factions implicated in cocaine’s rise. Singleton can’t quite get to the core of why these sympathetic and intelligent people would be so willing to risk everything for a business whose ugliest elements seem to horrify them.
The simple answers (money, power, prestige, danger) don’t seem convincing. When Franklin nets his first big payday from a kilo he’s able to sell, he buys a motorbike … which he then has to hide from his disapproving mother (The Wire’s Michael Hyatt). (This much is historically accurate: “Freeway” Rick Ross, the former head of a crack empire in Los Angeles, once told the reporter Gary Webb that he invested his money in property so his mother wouldn’t catch on to his dealings.) But Franklin, who cries in the car after his first encounter with a dealer who puts a gun in his face, who pleads with a gangster not to beat a man who’s robbed him, and who can’t steel himself to murder rivals, seems fundamentally ill-suited for the drug trade. “You soft as a baby’s head, bro,” a dealer tells him. Idris, imported from Britain, is terrific as Franklin, but he can’t get to grips with depths the character doesn’t have. When Franklin quits the game midway at the end of the fourth episode, you exhale with relief; when he suddenly dives back in again after a vague confrontation with his father (The Leftovers’s Kevin Carroll, shamefully underused), it’s baffling.
Teddy is easily the least sympathetic character, although Hudson gives him a dopey schoolboyish charm that belies his manipulative streak. Once again, Teddy seems dismayed by the corpses he has to dispose of, the collateral damage of missing women and murdered children. But mostly he seems to be having a blast whipping on a pair of retro spectacles and pretending to be a drug lord (a subplot involving his former partner and his two-year-old child is the most pointless part of the story). The real involvement of the CIA in helping the Contras distribute cocaine in the U.S. was explored by Gary Webb in the “Dark Alliance” series published in the San Jose Mercury News. Webb’s accusations remain contentious; there isn’t nearly enough in the show to be able to re-litigate them.
One issue that seems to belabor proceedings is that Snowfall is, above all, an origin story. There’s no mention of the word “crack” in the first six episodes. Cocaine is a white man’s drug, snorted by partiers oblivious to the human cost of the cartels that supply it. In many ways, the first 10 episodes feel like the first season of so many Netflix superhero shows: preamble that necessarily gets the show to a place where it can delve deeper into the story it wants to tell in future seasons. There are moments of absurd comedy that bring to mind better shows like Breaking Bad—particularly a scene where Franklin and his friend Leon (Isaiah John) crank up The Carpenters at a stop sign to disguise the sounds of a man yelling in the trunk of their car. But Snowfall rarely offers its characters the kind of moral and emotional complexity that made Walter White or Stringer Bell so enthralling. Singleton seems to want his characters to be sympathetic above all, but the result is that their actions don’t make sense.
One virtue of the show is that it’s gorgeous, with hazy tracking shots of L.A. in warm sunshine, and a diegetic, funk-filled soundtrack that contributes to a nostalgic view of South Central in the early ’80s. (Singleton reportedly had bars on windows removed from homes in the neighborhood while filming to give some sense of what it was like before cocaine hit.) And the setup offers plenty of potential for future seasons. It would be valuable if, for example, Snowfall could let viewers compare the harsh response to African American communities blighted by crack with the considerably more sympathetic contemporary treatment of the opioid epidemic. But for now, the first series is barely a tragedy of errors—a mostly rote analysis of how a confluence of circumstances and greedy individuals contributed to the rise of a drug whose toll was incalculable.