AUSTIN, Texas — Before Nancy Reagan delivered her famous "Just Say No" address to the American people in response to increased drug use rates among teens, the crack cocaine epidemic had to have a beginning. With the streets of 1983 Los Angeles as its tapestry, FX's new drama Snowfall looks to explore the rise of crack through several vantage points, all of which intersect in inevitable but unexpected ways.
If this sounds like the template for HBO's The Wire, set in early 2000s Baltimore, well, the similarities are noticeable at the surface. But if your inspiration is one of the best dramas ever made, that's not a bad starting point. And Snowfall does enough in its pilot, which premiered Thursday night at ATX Television Festival, to separate itself from the master of sprawling crime dramas. (Also, not for nothing, the '80s setting is awesome.)
Snowfall's pilot follows several characters in East Los Angeles, including: Franklin Saint (relative newcomer Damson Idris), a high school graduate and budding entrepreneur trying to make a name for himself; Teddy McDonald (Carter Hudson), an exiled CIA operative who gets a lifeline when Nicaraguan Contra soldier Alejandro Usteves (Juan Javier Cardenas) is in need of a new partner for his operation; and Gustavo Zapata (Sergio Peris-Mencheta), a luchador who finds himself entangled in a deadly crime.
It's a lot of moving parts, and even reading the synopsis is a bit overwhelming. But co-creator John Singleton — director of Boyz n the Hood, Shaft and 2 Fast 2 Furious, who recently made a move to TV — is already demonstrating he can handle the sprawling narrative. The pace is inviting, not convoluted or unnecessarily hurried. The Los Angeles setting is both idyllic (the '80s are dope, and so is the music) and foreboding. I could hear the dialogue just fine, but I found myself taking in the seemingly endless palm trees and L.A. skylines whenever Snowfall peeled back the camera a bit.
In a Q&A with the audience following the screening, Singleton said he drew inspiration from his own life growing up in Los Angeles for depicting Franklin's story.
"For me, it was about creating worlds," he said. "And the one thing that I learned in college was to write about what you know, first and foremost. And this is kind of like my formative years. This is like before I made my first movie, the things that I saw as a teenager. I went to school one year in the Valley, and it changed my life."
With Snowfall's other storylines, most notably the CIA operative who aided the Contra soldiers of Nicaragua, Singleton and fellow co-creator Dave Andron took to first-hand accounts. As Hudson told the crowd, the CIA's potential involvement is one of those blemishes on American history that's not talked about enough.
"I didn’t know any of it, and then when I found out, I was terrified," Hudson said. "Reading the books and watching documentaries, I'm like, we should be talking about this every day. That the CIA was illegally operating within the United States is shocking and appalling and terrifying."
Yet despite its heavy subject matter, Snowfall's pilot doesn't shy away from moments of levity. Without giving away too much, it handles the eccentricity of certain characters in the drug trade with enough humor that — while it's certainly unsettling — won't overwhelm the series with dread. The pilot's credits also (quite necessarily) include an endless list of porn extras — porn actress #1, #2, #3 and so forth. So take that, The Leftovers, and its "vigorous hand job guy."
FX has emerged as one of the best networks for prestige television, matched only by HBO in quality programming. It rarely strikes out (even HBO had Vinyl). Snowfall doesn't look like it will buck that trend. It may tread in some familiar territory, but it's Wire-adjacent, not a Wire pastiche.
Singleton's writing about what he knows, and what he knows is powerful, resonant and important.
Snowfall premieres July 5 at 10 p.m. ET on FX.