This review contains light spoilers from the first three episodes of FX’s Snowfall
It’ll be easy enough to get audiences to tune into the first few episodes of Snowfall. The premise is exciting: the origin story of L.A.’s early ‘80s crack cocaine epidemic, experienced through the eyes of a young black man. Created by John Singleton, Eric Amadio (After Sex) and Dave Andron (Justified), the previews promised a distinctive take on the traditional drug story, and a new, mostly uncharted world to explore in episodic form. Like many others, I was most interested in the perspective of Franklin Saint, played by Damson Idris, who naively dives into selling cocaine in hopes of getting his shot at the American dream.
And indeed, Franklin has the most compelling narrative on the show—although it’s unfortunate that he’s not necessarily the most interesting character. In the pilot we learn that he lives in a modest but comfortable home, with a hard-working and attentive mom, but secretly sells weed with her brother—which often brings him to the hood. But he also spends time in the wealthier parts of town, as he’s maintained some friendships with the white kids who he went to school with—kids he now deals to. And although his uncle is satisfied with their current working arrangement, and things seem to be going well for the both of them, for some reason, Franklin wants more.
However, we never really find out why, and this is a key problem with the series. Of course, Franklin wants money—more than he makes selling weed, and more than he could ever make, working as hard as his mother does. It’s somewhat interesting to watch as he ventures into this dangerous new world, but one gets the sense that there has to be another motivation, or another aspect to Franklin’s character—something that sends him diving headfirst into selling a drug his (much older, and at least street-wiser) uncle won’t even touch. (Even as I pose this question, I can hear what I know Lil Wayne’s response would be in my head, but Franklin isn’t a rapper and even with characters for whom money is the motivation, the audience still needs to believe that they want more.) Consider the classic cocaine film Blow, where we met a young Boston George, desperate to never be poor—to never even be a middle class worker like his father. But beyond that, George also had a bizarre, almost casual-like recklessness that explained his career choice. Franklin doesn’t need that character trait specifically, but he needs something that would make watching him experience the highs and lows of this business more compelling.
Snowfall writers have made the mistake of relying almost solely on the plotlines to drive the story. Who is Franklin, beyond the sweet boy with a hunger for real, American-dream-like money that we meet in the first three episodes of the series? This is important because one has to assume this new world and all the new problems (robberies, violence and the wedge driven between him and his uncle) will change him in some way. But if we never knew him well to begin with, how will we know if and how he’s evolving? And, most importantly, why will we care about anything that befalls him, when the writers haven’t done the work of making us become invested in their lead character? Sure, it’s upsetting to watch him catch his first major beatdown, just after scoring his first big deal, but such scenes are far less affecting when characters like Franklin have been lazily presented in the first crucial hours of a series.
One of the problems may be that the writers have, rather than investing more time with Franklin and his family, spread themselves thin with other story arcs that have little to do with Franklin, and more to do with the larger story of cocaine in America (although this clearly wasn’t their intention, I can’t help but imagine a series that had focused more on Franklin, while placing these other narratives in the margins, where they could have still been impactful). Carter Hudson plays Teddy McDonald, a CIA agent who is also diving in headfirst—though, unlike Franklin, he has the support of the United States government behind him. Although it’s great to see a TV show take on this narrative (lest the general public continue to think that the drug problem in America should be blamed on inner cities and Pablo Escobar), it’s a storyline that suffers from the same problem as Franklin’s. Who is Teddy, and why should we care that he’s risking his life and his family on this new “cocaine project”? In this story, is he a villain, a hero, an anti hero, or something else entirely? Seriously, after three episodes I’m still wondering, who are these characters and why should I care about them?
Oddly enough, it’s a minor character in another plotline (which, like Teddy’s CIA story, doesn’t yet carry as much weight as Franklin’s) that proves that the series is capable of offering up well-drawn characters. Gustavo (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) is a wrestler struggling to make a living (let alone achieve fame), who agrees to commit a robbery for two cousins, in an attempt to make some extra cash. He soon finds himself caught up in their Mexican cartel family drama and their burgeoning cocaine business. Gistavo is presented as a gentle giant sort, and one with real, moral reservations about his new line of work. Another minor character, Franklin’s mother Cissy (played by Michael Hyatt), also fares better than many of the main characters. She’s compulsively watchable, and even the storyline about her troubles as someone who evicts impoverished tenants is more compelling than some of the other aspects of the series.
Of course, Snowfall is right to bank on the plot (along with a pretty dope soundtrack) being enough to rope in viewers. And all hope is not lost on these greater issues—we still have time to get to know and understand Franklin and all that has lead him to this point. There’s also plenty of time for these somewhat disparate storylines to start to gel together, but these opening hours remain a disappointment to those of us who were hoping FX would deliver an Americans-like take on a very different, but equally thrilling, ‘80s crime narrative. If Snowfall is going to course correct and compete with the best in TV storytelling (and I’m not entirely convinced that it can), it’ll have to do so soon, and it’ll have to begin with Franklin. As a new leading man, Damson Idris is, so far, delivering a strong (if reserved) performance, and there’s no reason to think his talents won’t be put to better use as the season continues to unfold. Although it must be restated that it was a mistake not to have done so from the beginning. Viewers may be coming for the blood, blow and period piece costumes, but they’ll only stay for the kinds of characters who make all that drama feel like a backdrop to the real, meatier story of the human condition in all its pain and glory.
Shannon M. Houston is a Staff Writer on Hulu’s upcoming series The Looming Tower. She is the former TV Editor of Paste Magazine, and her work has appeared in Salon, Indiewire’s Shadow and Act, and Heart&Soul. She currently has more babies than you. You can follow her on Twitter.