Hit or Sh**: FX’s SNOWFALL
In this Crossfader series, our intricate and complex rating system will tell you definitively whether new television pilots are worth your valuable time. We call it: HIT OR SH**.
I have no reason to fear FX. In fact, they’ve demonstrated remarkably good taste throughout their career, from the ancient pulpy charm of NIP/TUCK (the first show I ever binged; fight me!), to the college-freshman-favorite WILFRED, to the auteurist boundary-pushing of LOUIE (and yes, humdrum mainstream appeals such as AMERICAN HORROR STORY and ARCHER). But since the network enjoys a bizarrely positive relationship with the Crossfader television staff considering our coverage of FARGO, ATLANTA, IT’S ALWAYS SUNNY, BASKETS, BETTER THINGS, and LEGION, in addition to the fact it hosts THE AMERICANS, one of the best shows nobody is watching, any new FX show is considered well-worth some time over Crossfader way. That being said, their newest property, SNOWFALL, unfortunately offers some causes for consternation. It’s bright, colorful, generally lighthearted, and honestly, kinda fun. But when you’re dealing with one of history’s most vicious drug epidemics, those tonal signifiers come across as somewhat uneasy.
As you could probably piece together from the various advertisements hyping up SNOWFALL, the latest from the man who directed BOYZ N THE HOOD deals with the rise of crack in the streets of early ‘80s Los Angeles. However, SNOWFALL manages to separate itself from many of its peers by taking the now somewhat wary route of the “intersecting stories” format. Our four main characters, although we’re only really introduced to two in the pilot, are as follows: our main boy, Franklin Saint (Damson Idris), a sober and book-smart teenager who chooses to sell drugs for financial gain; Gustavo “El Oso” Zapata (Sergio Peris-Mencheta), a luchador-turned-cartel drug enforcer; Teddy McDonald (Carter Hudson), a government operative who gets looped into a clandestine operation involving cocaine and funding South American military forces; and Lucia Villanueva (Emily Rios), the daughter of one of the local big, bad Drug Daddies. Soon that magic Colombian candy brings everyone together for one wet, wild ride through the realms of the extra-legal.
This bike ain’t got a permit, baby
Franklin’s is the storyline we spend the most time on, and it seems to promise that it’ll be the only one worth keeping up with as the show progresses. Franklin is your classic morally ambiguous protagonist. The show makes it clear that he loves his mother, Cissy (Michael Hyatt), and takes care of himself by avoiding any substance abuse on his own part, but is driven to the wrong side of the law by his desire to give his loved ones a better life. Scenes such as Cissy talking with her dismissive and uncaring white boss on the phone after pulling extra hours at work for next-to-no pay are subtly delivered, and the pain in Franklin’s eyes as he sees his role model overtaxed and underappreciated believably conveys his motto to do anything to improve their lot. The additional undercurrents of having been accepted to a overbearingly white school due to his intellectual prowess, only to leave due to microaggressions and tokenization, adds further depth to Franklin’s character. The scenes of the uneasy attempted rekindling of friendship between him and childhood friend Leon (Isaiah John) successfully establish that Franklin is stuck between several worlds and spheres of influence. That’s why it’s a little unsavory that SNOWFALL seems to pin the genesis of the rise of crack on Franklin’s shoulders.
The main creative forces behind the show are refreshingly diverse, so it at least manages to sidestep feeling exploitative, but I can’t shake the feeling that there was some more cogent societal criticism to be injected here. Admittedly, my personal opinion is somewhat clouded by the fact that one of the few “conspiracy” theories I wholeheartedly buy into is that Ronald Reagan and the DEA planted drugs in communities lower on the socioeconomic ladder in order to fuel the prison-industrial complex, but it just seems silly to present Franklin as the virtual Patient Zero of coke slinging in LA. Sent to speak with deranged drug dealer Avi (Alon Aboutboul) when the spoiled Rob (Taylor Kowalski) can’t muster up the stones to go himself after using up his parents’ supply at a party in the hills, Franklin offers to sell an entire key in 24 hours in order to make a quick buck (or several). It makes sense that he would jump at the bit since the weed business isn’t turning a sizable enough profit, but for Chrissakes, he doesn’t even give it a second thought! The tense scene between Franklin and the dealer he encounters that’s finally willing to take it off his hands is a highlight, bringing to mind the better parts of BREAKING BAD, but there isn’t nearly enough internal turmoil on Franklin’s part to make literally endangering an entire community seem like a reasonable choice.
The working man’s Bobby DeNiro
That being said, this does circuitously contribute to the rather cartoon-like nature of the show as a whole. SNOWFALL’s big secret is that it’s downright goofy more often that not. Its color palette is as vibrant and popping as they come. We’re introduced to the aforementioned Avi as he uses bulletproof vest-outfitted members of his team as target practice, Uncle Jerome (Amin Joseph) and Aunt Louie (Angela Lewis) offer comic relief, and one of our main characters is a goddamned luchador.
On that note, now’s as good a time as any to segue into discussion of our other characters, and unfortunately they all come up rather flat. Lucia is easy to discuss: I can’t tell you one memorable thing about her. As for Gustavo, he gets the short end of the stick. I truly would be interested in exploring the story of a participant in the apparent luchador underground of ‘80s Los Angeles, but he’s so quickly shunted off into the role of a generic enforcer for a local cartel that any differentiation in terms of his character is rendered entirely superficial. A gritty NACHO LIBRE? Sign me the fuck up! All we get here, however, are unearned scenes of him giving beatdowns to people we don’t even come close to caring about.
Chancho, give me some coke!
Teddy seems to be the character with the most potential to compete with Franklin for our care in future episodes. However, that’s entirely reliant on the fact that it’s hard to know what to make of him at this point in the game. Although introduced to us as a dweebish office lackey, there is a dark undercurrent of something or other broiling underneath the surface, glimpsed when he literally begs his supervisor to allow him to take over the dangerous CIA job of running a drug ring to fund foreign resistance fighters. Teddy seems like a man who has a big secret to keep under wraps, especially considering all of the references to a previous event that crippled his career and marriage, and SNOWFALL seems to be teasing that a cold sociopathy will be revealed as he inevitably gets in touch with Franklin. But in terms of the pilot, we remain unsure of whether or not we can fully identify with him, or care enough to even begin the process of doing so.
SNOWFALL at least seems to promise that even if it ultimately doesn’t have much to say, it’ll still be a generally enjoyable process to watch it attempt to. Somewhere in the admittedly large gray area between DOPE and THE WIRE, the show’s treatment of its characters and themes may prove to be its downfall. I’m sure the stakes will increase as things progress, but as of right now, it seems like a perfectly attainable goal to become a wealthy cog in a booming hard drug empire. I don’t think that’s the best message to be sending out, and a more sober treatment of its subject material could go a long way towards making us tune in each week. But nevertheless, the pilot is entertaining, and that’s really what it all boils down to at the end of the day.
Verdict: Sh** Probation
SNOWFALL airs on FX on Wednesdays