Days before the Tupac Shakur biopic All Eyez on Me premiered, the news hit that John Singleton’s original script for the project opened the rapper’s story with Tupac being raped in prison. Singleton had left the ill-fated film twice before Benny Boom stepped in to helm it, but it was clear from that first screenplay that Singleton wasn’t messing around. He was striving for the kind of gritty but stylized realism that distinguished his debut, 1991’s Boyz n the Hood.
With a slick look and a punchy logline — the series promises the origin story of the U.S. crack epidemic, told through fictional key players in 1980s Los Angeles — FX’s Singleton-created Snowfall certainly delivers some grit and realism, and it has an unnerving male-rape scene of its own. But Singleton the trailblazer has here come up with a series that’s more derivative than it is original, one without a clear focus — or the heart of recent series such as Fox’s Shots Fired.
Snowfall compares too easily to any number of peak-TV dramas. A slow-burn, less-is-more aesthetic comes courtesy The Americans; a multitude of interlocking storylines and insider law enforcement knowledge owes something to The Wire; and a wry humor that dances with absurdity, along with a long-con narrative, recall Breaking Bad. What’s surprising, though, is how many similarities Snowfall shares in form with a comedy: Silicon Valley.
That HBO series frustrates and delights (but mostly frustrates) with its cyclical narrative, in which the leads’ every success builds to a downfall, until everyone, every episode, is right back where they started. Snowfall functions similarly, with three main characters each plotting his own ascent — by pushing coke on the street, or being the muscle for a wannabe drug kingpin or dealing powder to secretly fund the Contras in Nicaragua. Franklin (Damson Idris) is a good African-American kid with entrepreneurial spirit. Gustavo (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) is a gentle giant in need of cash. And Teddy McDonald (Carter Hudson) is a sometimes befuddled, sometimes brilliant CIA agent in need of redemption. All fail miserably. Again and again. And it’s frustrating as hell. Only the spot-on casting and performances keep this show from spinning its wheels grave-deep.
Snowfall adjusts its visual style for each of its protagonists. Vintage yellows follow Franklin around like he’s living inside an old Polaroid, while Gustavo gets a grimy green filter heavy on the shadows, and Teddy is layered in a sterile blue tint. A fourth character on the fringe — eccentric Israeli drug lord Avi (Alon Moni Aboutboul), who seems ripped right out of Boogie Nights — soaks up a sunny, neutral light and acts as the fulcrum on which these three characters’ stories balance.
Every house Franklin enters — aunt’s, uncle’s, cousin’s — has a set of funky beaded curtains hanging between rooms, which seems more metaphor than period detail; this ambitious young man has the ability to see through obstacles, through the next door, but can’t help getting tangled up along the way. When he grows tired of playing it straight as a corner-shop cashier, he stumbles into Avi’s world to ask for a kilo of cocaine to move — money’s on his mind. The kid’s clean cut, the kind of guy Bill Cosby would laud for good posture and grades, so it’s delightful to see him opposite Avi, as the silver-haired, Speedo-clad kingpin giggles, testing out bulletproof vests by shooting at his own drunken, hard-partying henchmen around the pool. Every scene with Avi pops with unpredictability and dark humor.
Meanwhile, Gustavo, a part-time luchador by the name El Oso, quietly objects to the outrageous demands of his new bosses — Pedro (Filipe Valle Costa) and Lucia (Emily Rios) — who ask him to break into Pedro’s dangerous dad’s house and steal thousands of dollars. Every inch of Gustavo’s enormous body sighs, “I’m too old for this shit,” but he has no choice. Rios, best known for her role as Jesse’s love interest on Breaking Bad, shines in her role as a gutsy, thoughtful criminal. When an obstacle’s thrown in Lucia’s way, she grinds her teeth, her eyes shifting until they land on Gustavo, the solution to her problems.
And in the CIA realm, Teddy is an unexpected and welcome detour from the archetype of a jetset agent. The first time we see him, he’s not charming ambassadors in a tailored suit; he’s in a humdrum office, shredding documents on a lazy Saturday. When another agent overdoses — after a sexy woman blows coke up the man’s ass — Teddy is pulled into an elaborate scheme to fund the war in Nicaragua by moving cocaine in the United States. (Though fictionalized here, a similar operation actually happened.) We then see him don a Members Only jacket and pep-talk himself into character to meet with Avi. Hudson reveals immense depth in Teddy, a man who can shiver and howl with fear after finding a leach on his arm and, in the next second, suavely impersonate a cunning drug dealer.
For all that is glorious about the acting, directing and individual scenes — many of which etched themselves in my memory — Snowfall is a collection of unique, beautiful flakes that don’t quite coalesce into a drift. More than halfway through the first season, the three storylines still are spiraling in opposite directions, with little indication that they’re ever going to tie together.