Much like AMC’s “Breaking Bad,” “Snowfall” on FX offers a quality crime-empire series that expands far beyond its expected confines. Created by Eric Amadio, Dave Andron and the late icon John Singleton, the series garnered a quick cult following upon its premiere back in 2017 that has only expanded since.
Similar to Singleton’s infamous 1991 film, “Boyz n the Hood,” the core plot of “Snowfall” bases itself in the impoverished neighborhoods of South Central Los Angeles and offers a dramatized account of his observances growing up. However violent, Singleton’s works are unmistakably authentic and political in their subject matter. “Snowfall” proves no exception, as it shows the historically-based and CIA-assisted decay of Black communities through the gradual spread of crack cocaine in the early 1980s within an engaging drama.
*This article will refrain from any major spoilers but be warned that the general premise and characters will be discussed*
The show’s protagonist, Franklin Saint, returns to his home in South Central prior to the premiere episode and is thrust into the illicit drug trade as a means to escape the poverty he sees all around him, especially at home living with his single mother. His homelife serves as only one of many examples of systematic racism and prejudice corrupting the show’s setting, a reality that drives its themes of inequality in a skewed capitalistic society.
Franklin is an exceptional student who returned home due to the alienation he felt at a primarily white university. Meanwhile, those around him help establish the colorful cast of characters that endear viewers. Franklin’s uncle is a local drug dealer, his best friend a hothead fresh out of jail, his mother an honest businesswoman, his neighbor and close family friend a long-time police officer and his estranged father a former Black Panther.
The series incorporates this diverse range of perspectives and places them in close proximity with one another to both drive tension and invite discourse. One of the show’s most ideologically outspoken episodes is Season 3’s “Confessions.” It hammers home the difference in class and race maintained throughout the plot by having the white, patriotic CIA agent Teddy engage in conversation with the disillusioned lead.
The notion of different groups experiencing different Americas becomes explicit, and though neither side really wavers, the conversation is noteworthy. Nearly every episode in the series offers a degree of nuanced social commentary that encourages viewers to think without feeling lectured. By combining such insight with consistently excellent writing, what follows is a compelling and informative drama without heavy-handed overtones.
There remains much more to enjoy from “Snowfall” than merely its politics, however prominent they may be. The storyboarding and subsequent performances are exceptional. Each season offers a new, seemingly insurmountable obstacle for the characters to overcome. How they overcome it — that is if they do overcome it — compels the audience while raising the previously established stakes.
Conflicts arise between arms and drug dealers, various gangs, the CIA and DEA, the local police, within families and every variation of those parties. But regardless of the parties involved, characters face traceable consequences for each of their choices. There are sacrifices and mistakes made, each heightening the drama, changing the characters and enriching the plot.
As for the performances mentioned above, it’s only appropriate to begin with the lead. Any formidable series demands a captivating, if not outright charismatic, central character. Damson Idris, the actor responsible for Franklin Saint, accomplishes both and offers a masterclass in range throughout the series.
The gradual transition and arguable descent into immorality common among crime-empire series is displayed here, but Franklin’s motives, humanity and rationale are never in question. He experiences it all in the four seasons currently available, and it is a pleasure to follow him deeper down the rabbit hole as our protagonist.
His foil, CIA agent Teddy McDonald, only matches his ambition. Played by actor Carter Hudson, Teddy will surprise you repeatedly, even with that expectation in mind.
Lastly, Franklin’s mother, Cissy, played by Michael Hyatt, grounds the show in humanity. There is a gravity to Hyatt’s performance that strengthens any scene she appears in, and she serves as a formidable moral counterweight to the characters around her.
Other standouts remain, such as Sergio Peris-Mencheta and Kevin Carroll, but there isn’t much that is substandard in the show’s production. The show’s four seasons build the stakes with each episode, all of them culminating in explosive finales and penultimate episodes with often fatal consequences.
Despite its political messaging and historical foundation, “Snowfall” still meets all of the traditional criteria for a compelling story. A warring obligation between one’s own well-being and that of one’s community sets a framework for romance, betrayal, revenge, corruption, greed and an unbridled ambition to thrive. This ethical dilemma is faced by both Franklin, an eventual drug kingpin, and Teddy, the patriotic CIA officer tasked with funding a covert war in Nicaragua.
While Franklin stays firmly situated in the community even while his business gradually decays, Teddy faces the consequences of his choices in the faces of those at home and abroad that rely on him. The show incorporates these dramatic elements naturally and without rushing their resolutions. So, while the story considers the human consequences on community-wide and even global scales, individual emotions and internal conflicts prevail.
These elements of “Snowfall” are reminiscent of the revered television series “Breaking Bad” as well as classics such as “The Wire” and “Boardwalk Empire,” even beyond their sometimes similar subject matters. “Snowfall” earns its place in the pantheon of great crime-empire series rather than just imitating them. This may seem like high praise, but the FX product meets these comparisons while contributing something unmistakably original.
So, if you find yourself with an hour, I highly recommend sampling the pilot episode. “Snowfall” can currently be streamed through a Hulu subscription, along with the rest of the FX catalog, or through FXNOW. There are 40 episodes available, each clocking in at almost an hour in length.
In addition to the substantial library of episodes already out, the series was recently renewed for a highly-anticipated fifth season last March. Its release date is still undetermined, which allows new viewers a prime opportunity to catch up on the available catalog. And with COVID-19 restrictions slowly lifting, plot threads still to resolve and lots of momentum to draw on after an intense fourth season, I wholly expect that the fifth season of “Snowfall” will deliver yet again when it finally releases. Hopefully, you’ll be caught up by then.