FX’s Snowfall serves as a well-researched yet banal history lesson on America’s war on drugs, and more specifically the scourge of crack cocaine in Los Angeles in the 1980s. Through the eyes of a cast of unlikeable, ill-defined caricatures, the series provides a step-by-step accounting of how the C.I.A. enabled certain cocaine smugglers as a way of indirectly funding the contra war against the Sandinistas in South America, how desperate experimentation led that powder to be turned into crack cocaine, and how the cool, capitalist aspirations of a few visionaries turned the drug into an epidemic.
Snowfall feels like a pastiche, not only of series creator John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood, but of dozens of other drug narratives. The result is like Scarface by way of Entourage, with more detail extended to glassy mansions with coke-filled caches than to the people who live within them. Whereas The Wire took pains to depict how drugs impact a city from the bottom up, Snowfall provides an abridged CliffsNotes, relying on one-dimensional supporting characters to illustrate the rippling effects of the narcotics supply chain.
Snowfall’s unimaginative presentation and narrative shortcuts make it hard to care about its three main protagonists: Franklin Saint (Damson Idris), an ambitious 19-year-old from South Central looking to tap into the American dream; Lucia Villanueva (Emily Rios), who’s trying to stake a claim in her father Manuel’s (Manuel Uriza) massive cartel; and Teddy McDonald (Carter Hudson), a disgraced C.I.A. agent seeking career redemption. Instead of allowing their dangerous mistakes and moral struggles to drive the story, however, Snowfall inorganically shapes them to suit the narrative.
Franklin genuinely feels that the world is rigged against blacks, but Snowfall doesn’t bring us face to face with that systemic racism. In fact, because his mother, Cissy (Michael Hyatt), has slaved away as the despised enforcer of a white slumlord to give her son options other than the low-level pot-slinging of his uncle, Jerome (Amin Joseph), there’s a sense that Franklin turns to drugs because the narrative demands it of him, not because he needs to.
Likewise, though Lucia claims that sexism is what keeps her from running her father’s cartel alongside her high-ranking uncle, the series offers little sense of that oppression. If anything, she’s better treated than her less intelligent cousin and partner in crime, Pedro (Filipe Valle Costa), and as a result she comes across not so much victimized as petty and vindictive.
The characters are passive pieces in the show’s narrative chess game, prone to almost arbitrary behavior: Franklin is willing to give up his nascent enterprise so as to keep his hands clean of violence at the same time that he’s willing to pick a fight with a police officer. Even worse is the characterization of Teddy, whose constant handwringing clashes with how easily and eagerly he abandons his family and compromises his beliefs for the sake of his career-advancing work with a murderously suave Nicaraguan soldier, Alejandro Usteves (Juan Javier Cardenas).
It’s not until the final, fittingly titled episode, “The Rubicon,” that the main characters choose exactly which lines they’re willing to cross. But for the most part, everyone’s actions remain the consequence of the dramatic shortcuts that are par for the course in a series that’s only too happy to cheaply copy its predecessors. Take the scenario that has Teddy and Alejandro getting stranded in the desert with 25 kilos of cocaine, if for no other reason than to mimic a similarly plotted Breaking Bad episode. Aside from acknowledging that accidents happen when illegally transporting drugs, the scene does nothing to advance the narrative. The series even name-drops The Godfather just before setting up a pivotal sit-down between two warring dealers.
Even the way in which Snowfall begins, with a thesis statement in which Franklin explains that stealing is wrong but dealing is business, borrows all of its swagger from the song on the soundtrack: “California Love.” In truth, the series fares far better when it’s not acting as untouchable as Elliot Ness, and the bloody final episode suggests that next season might add a little more weight to how these characters live with the consequences of their actions.