It's difficult to avoid comparing FX's new drama Snowfall to HBO's The Wire. My colleague Miles Surrey did so off seeing just the pilot at the ATX Television Festival. Both shows focus on the drug trade, the former exploring the spread of cocaine in 1980s Los Angeles, while the latter zeroes in on a particular ring in 2000s Baltimore. There's also the casting, which is appropriately diverse (and even shares actress Michael Hyatt in common).
Most of all, though, the shows invite comparison because of their sprawling storylines, which tell the stories of their respective cities, and how the characters within are affected by the drugs that are damaging communities. At The Wire's peak — seasons three and four — creator/showrunner David Simon weaved these narratives together beautifully. Even if characters never interacted, their actions always served a clear, core story: how the War on Drugs fails.
Unfortunately, Boyz n the Hood director John Singleton and his co-creators, Eric Amadio and Dave Andron, haven't really clarified that organizing principle yet. What appears intriguing in the pilot falls apart in the following episodes. The marketing frames Snowfall as a series about the creation of crack — the tagline is “this is how crack began” — but the first several episodes (six were made available for critics) use the drug as an incidental plot device to connect the three main storylines.
Were those stories strong enough to sustain viewer interest, Snowfall would still be enjoyable. But as it stands, the drama series is a slog, ultimately paling in comparison to the lofty standard established by The Wire. To be fair, that’s a remarkably high standard; The Wire is one of the greatest TV shows of all time, and frequently hailed as such. And there’s some promise in Snowfall’s first few episodes — enough that it’s possible for the creative team to focus on what’s working, find their footing and turn things around. But to tell a story about the drug trade and its relationship to a specific city with a large ensemble cast is just begging for the comparison to be made.
In that parallel, Snowfall comes up short on almost every level, but its characters feel especially shallow. Whether they were detectives, drug dealers or murderous masterminds, The Wire’s main characters were the show’s lifeblood.
Simon drew them with a fine specificity; no one felt like a stock character or a carbon-copy of someone else. There’s Stringer Bell, Idris Elba’s organization-obsessed, business school-attending drug lord. There’s Kima Greggs, the loyal-to-law, unfaithful-to-wife detective played with wiseacre charm by Sonja Sohn. Even supporting characters — like Proposition Joe (Robert F. Chew), the most cordial kingpin you’ll ever meet — feel like they lead full lives off the screen.
None of the main characters in Snowfall are even half as interesting as The Wire’s supporting players. English actor Damson Idris is a wonder as neophyte drug dealer Franklin Saint, but he’s stuck in a passive role. When Franklin gets involved in dealing cocaine, after previously only buying and selling weed, he looks to his uncle Jerome (Amin Joseph) for help. He all but gives up when Jerome refuses, until his aunt Louie (Angela Lewis) suddenly appears and motivates him again. Franklin’s our point-of-view character, so it’s understandable that we’re seeing him learn the tricks of the trade, but rarely does he actually take the active role required of the best protagonists.
But at least Franklin’s likable. Teddy (Carter Hudson), a CIA agent involved with Contra cocaine trafficking, is unpleasant in his personality and incompetent in his job. He repeatedly screws up, inserting himself into drug drops and negotiations that he can’t handle, to the constant chagrin of his partner Alejandro (Juan Javier Cárdenas). Meanwhile, drug empire heiress Lucia (Emily Rios) and her partner, wrestler Gustavo (Sergio Peris-Mencheta), are stuck in a sluggish cocaine deal plot that’s as murky logistically as the lighting in most of their scenes. (Seriously, for a show that sells itself on its vibrant, Californian colors, Snowfall’s cinematography is all but ruined by unexpectedly dingy lighting in a large percentage of scenes.)
There are some engaging side characters, like Hyatt as Franklin’s hard-working, long-suffering mother Cissy and Alon Aboutboul as the cartoonish, seemingly villainous drug lord Avi. But they aren’t in nearly enough of Snowfall to make up for its flat protagonists.
Worse, Snowfall’s characters barely interact, and thus we’re left with three stilted, separate stories. The Wire had branching narratives, yes, but it was also about something bigger. The chess match between police and dealers in Baltimore is a mere slice of the larger War on Drugs. As the Barksdale empire falls, a new operation run by late-season character Marlo Stanfield rises. This illustrates the futility of the greater conflict fueling the show, and makes Simon’s series an epic.
Snowfall, at least in its first few episodes, has no driving metaphor: It is what it is. The actual story is too small-stakes. As the Hollywood Reporter’s Tim Goodman noted in his review of the series, Singleton and his team seem to be hinting at a bigger picture that will come into focus later. But The Wire managed to frame its story as micro to a greater macro in its pilot. The three concurrent plot lines in Snowfall don’t have to all intersect immediately, but there should be common thematic elements. So far, the only major shared element is cocaine — and that’s not enough.
Not only are Snowfall’s plots simple, they’re also a slog. The writing is all but humorless. There are a couple of solid laughs in the pilot, when Franklin is at his most charismatic and riffing on his fish-out-of-water role among his white friends, but as the stories grow darker, the writing gets claustrophobically serious. I’m not arguing for Apatow-esque improv, but the most intense and acclaimed dramas of this century — Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Sopranos — make room for lighter notes amid the otherwise heavy material.
The Wire certainly isn’t 30 Rock, but there are a lot of laughs that come out of incredibly dire situations. In just the fourth episode of the series, detectives Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) and Bunk Moreland (Wendell Pierce) investigate a crime scene together. Famously, their dialogue consists solely of the word “fuck,” invoked in all manner of tones. They drop it close to 40 times. It’s hilarious, but still manages to advance the plot and further color the relationship between the two men. Snowfall lacks any semblance of this levity and, as a result, watching it feels like a chore.
The Wire is not exactly a fast-paced show; it takes multiple episodes in the first season before the pieces are in place. But it’s never a drag; by episode six, fastidious Lieutenant Daniels (Lance Reddick) has his detail set up, with the titular wiretap monitoring Baltimore kingpin Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris) and his dealers. The rest of the season builds off of those first six installments.
In Snowfall, the stories are bridges to nowhere. One subplot involving the theft of Franklin’s property takes a full three episodes to complete: the actual crime, the attempt to recover the stolen item and the fallout from that. The story is finally resolved in episode four, when Franklin takes action that would’ve made more sense in episode two. Because of that same action, all of his character development from episodes two and three — in which he starts to hardens in life as a drug mule and faces down terrifying figures with unexpected courage — is undone.
Most of Snowfall’s plots are like this: There’s a lot of action, in contrast to The Wire, but it’s impermanent. The writers feel like they’re killing time, not building an epic story. This, along with the lack of compelling characters, makes Snowfall more frustrating to watch than anything. Every new scene elicits not excitement or interest, but exasperation.
Should Snowfall get renewed for a second season — which I’d say is likely, since FX will probably want to give Singleton at least two turns at bat — it will need smarter storytelling and character development. The writers will need to cut what doesn’t work (the Gustavo/Lucia plot especially) and redevelop characters. Because more of the same will doom this show to exist only as a shadow of The Wire — a fate that a premise with this much potential doesn’t deserve.
Snowfall premieres on FX Wednesday at 10 p.m. Eastern.
Mic has ongoing TV coverage. Follow our main TV hub.