'Snowfall': FX's Crack-Era Drama Falls Between a Rock and a Hard Place

John Singleton's ensemble drama traces origins of Eighties war on drugs and South Central's crack epidemic, one crime story at a time

Rob Sheffield weighs in on 'Snowfall,' the FX drama that takes on '80s crack epidemic, the C.I.A. and South Central L.A., one crime story at a time. Credit: Ray Mickshaw/FX

In the new FX drama Snowfall, it's the summer of 1983 in South Central L.A.: palm trees, fire hydrants, boomboxes and the friendly neighborhood weed dealer. There's a kid named Franklin Saint – he went to a preppie boarding school in the Valley, but instead of moving on to college, he's drifted back to his old mean streets, working nights at a convenience store. By day, he sells pot to the local kids who dance while their radios blast "Jam on It." Across the country, a rap crew from Queens called Run-D.M.C. are about to make history with a 12-inch called "It's Like That," talking tough about ghetto life and asking, "What ever happened to unity?" Franklin has dreams and ideals. He hopes selling drugs is his ticket to freedom. He has no idea – none of these people do – that a drug called crack cocaine is about to hit L.A. Life as they know it is over. It's like that – and that's the way it is.

In the style of The Wire or Traffic, this topical ensemble drama – created by Boyz n the Hood director John Singleton – chronicles the rise of crack with a few overlapping crime stories. In addition to Franklin, there's Gustavo "El Oso" Zapata, a Mexican wrestler who falls in with the mob when he finds himself washed up in the luchador racket. At first he's just collecting debts, but then he meets Lucia, the daughter of a Mexican family cartel with plans to change the drug game. There's also Teddy, a disgraced CIA agent looking for a chance to redeem himself with the agency. He gets in on the Reagan Administration's new secret plan: an illegal (and off-the-books) scheme to fund terrorism in Nicaragua, where the CIA wants to overthrow the Sandinista government. To raise funds for this covert war, a new kind of drug is about to flood the market. None of these people have seen Al Pacino in Scarface yet – it doesn't open in theaters until December 1983. But they're already living it out.

Snowfall moves fast through these tangled stories, with a real sense of the human pain at the center of it; the show works emotionally even when it reaches too far for the story to make sense. English newcomer Damson Idris is excellent as Franklin, the confused kid who doesn't know what he wants. It's not a subtle or slow-burning story:  Singleton names this dealer Franklin Saint (!); the first time we see him, he's telling neighborhood kids that crime doesn't pay and making them give back what they stole from the ice cream man. Then, practically overnight, he meets a vicious Israeli gangster and offers to take over his coke-dealing operation in the hood.

Singleton has always been into broad strokes – see his remake of Shaft, where the Nazi cop is named Luger, or Poetic Justice, starring Janet Jackson as a girl named Justice who writes poetry. And given that it's the early 1980s, there's plenty of druggy music – when the soundtrack switches to the Fixx's "One Thing Leads You Another," you can practically see the bodies onscreen twitch with the cocaine jitters.

And for all the interlocking stories, Snowfall works best when it focuses on Franklin and his family. He lives with his mama Cissy, who works for a local slumlord; her job is ejecting black families who get behind on the rent. When Franklin hears her report to her boss, he snickers, "I was thinking about how good your white phone voice got." When the twentysomething was in prep school, he made friends with rich white kids from the Valley; now he's delivering weed to their mansions. The girl Franklin likes – she's such a sweet girl-next-door type that she actually lives next door – shows up at the convenience store to grab a bottle of Boone's Farm and a pack of Pop Rocks. (This was the year that the candy got pulled from shelves after false rumors it could make your stomach blow up in combination with soda – a clever crack metaphor in itself, especially with the slogan, "Taste the Explosion!") But Franklin is about to get mixed up in selling a different kind of Pop Rocks, a drug that's faster and deadlier than anything he could imagine. He doesn't realize yet – but the crime world will never be the same. And neither will anything else.