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Review: ‘Snowfall’ offers a fresh but often aimless take on the early days of L.A.'s crack cocaine epidemic

The rise of the crack cocaine epidemic is dramatized in the new FX series "Snowfall," with Malcolm Mays, left, Damson Idris and Isaiah John.
(Mark Davis/FX)
Television Critic

“How Crack Began” is the tagline for John Singleton’s new FX drama, “Snowfall.”

The “Boyz n the Hood” director, who influenced an entire generation of black filmmakers (“Dope” and “Straight Outta Compton” likely wouldn’t exist without him), returns to South L.A. circa 1983 for the beginnings of the crack cocaine epidemic.

“Snowfall,” which premieres Wednesday, paints a picture very different from that of today’s opioid crisis. Back then, urban communities were the target, the drug of choice couldn’t be had at a clinic and there was little sympathy from the media or lawmakers for those who became hopelessly addicted.

In the best moments of “Snowfall,” Singleton takes a story familiar to Hollywood — drugs, urban crime, etc — and reframes it, peeling away the tired gangster tropes and looking instead at the toll on the community.

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Damson Idris as Franklin on "Snowfall."
(Michael Yarish / FX)

Franklin Saint (Damson Idris) is the beating heart of “Snowfall.” The teen lives in South L.A. but attended high school in an upscale part of the San Fernando Valley. He works part-time as a stock boy at the local Korean-owned liquor store and makes a little money on the side dealing weed with his Uncle Jerome (Amin Joseph).

But when he’s introduced to the lucrative world of cocaine through a wealthy former schoolmate, Franklin sees an opportunity to expand his financial outlook.

The problem is, he’s a good kid with a loving mom (brought to life by talented “Wire” alum Michael Hyatt). Franklin has the smarts but not the ruthlessness required to run drugs on the mean streets of L.A. But just watch how the lack of opportunity, and the prospect of big money, can change a man.

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British actor Idris does a stellar job conveying the struggles, emotional and monetary, of an ambitious young man born into a low-income environment with few ways out. The choices to get ahead should simply be labeled “bad” and “worse,” and they wreak havoc on his psyche, his family and the social fabric of the neighborhood.

And oh, the neighborhood. The vivid depictions of life there are often the best moments in “Snowfall.”

Sunlight streams though the narrow, palm tree-lined streets. Kids ride colorful banana-seat bikes down cracked sidewalks. Teens blast their boom boxes on the RTD bus. Crime happens, but not half as much as the normal everyday stuff. It’s a tight neighborhood, not a war zone.

But we know what they don’t — that converging forces are about to rip them apart, and that’s the driving tension here.

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If only all of “Snowfall” were as compelling.

The problem is that the series is split among three narratives, and the time spent on the other characters dilutes a story that could have been told through Franklin. They are given equal time but half the depth, and since their stories take so long to intersect, “Snowfall” can feel like a meandering exercise in patience.

Emily Rios costars in FX's new series "Snowfall."
(Mark Davis / FX)

Lucia Villanueva (Emily Rios) was born into a Mexican drug cartel, and she is plotting to expand the family empire. Teddy McDonald (Carter Hudson) is a sidelined CIA agent, reassigned from an important mission overseas to L.A.

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Lucia’s backstory is as shallow as her motivations. What we do know is that she robs her own family to get ahead, yet appears too meek to have grown up around such bad hombres.

As for Teddy, the best guess is that he’s surveying L.A.’s cocaine trade when he uncovers a clandestine CIA operation. The U.S. is using drug money to buy arms for Nicaragua’s Contra militants, and he is going to get to the bottom of it, or maybe join in, or who knows?, because it takes forever to get anywhere with his goofy character. We do know that the only disguise the nerdy agent needs to trick seasoned drug dealers into thinking he’s one of them is a pair of aviator sunglasses. DEA agents, take note.

Then there’s the ridiculously cartoonish Israeli drug dealer Avi Drexler (Alon Moni Aboutboul), the “Boogie Nights”-style porn star party in the Valley and the luchador (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) who becomes a henchman for the Mexican cartel. All feature good actors handed poorly realized roles.

If they’d stuck with one story — Franklin’s — “Snowfall” would be another strong FX series. But as is, the drama is often as scattered and aimless as its title.

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‘Snowfall’

Where: FX

When: 10 p.m. Wednesday

Rating: TV-MA-LSV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17 with advisories for coarse language, sex and violence)

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lorraine.ali@latimes.com

@lorraineali

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