Snowfall: The Darkness Before the Dawn of the Crack Crisis

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Cover image for  article: Snowfall: The Darkness Before the Dawn of the Crack Crisis

Imagine its summer 1983.  Return of the Jedi has just hit theaters, Michael Jackson is ruling the airwaves with his new hit songs “Beat It” and “Billy Jean,” and Motorola just introduced the first mobile phones.  It was a different time, but as FX’s Snowfall illustrates, different doesn’t necessarily mean simpler.  The popularity of crack cocaine was about to hit the nation like a ton of white bricks, and thanks to series creators Eric Amadio and John Singleton we get a first-hand look at how it all started.

First and foremost, Snowfall is not a documentary.  Rather, it’s a fictional story set in early ‘80s California and revolves around the show’s true star: cocaine. Yes, the drug that needs no introduction is the centerpiece of yet another well-crafted portrait of an iconic American decade, and for good reason.  Its power has always lied in the possibilities that its mere existence could bring.  To this day people kill for it.  For far too long people have died for it.  It’s always had the ability to line someone’s pockets just as quickly as it could tear them apart, and for the protagonists of this series the possibility of the former is worth betting everything on -- even their lives.

There are three main storylines in Snowfall, and while I won’t give too much away, I can say that the individuals in all of them obviously want the same thing: more.  (Blow has that effect on people, one way or the other.)  Franklin (Damson Idris, pictured at top) is an intelligent African American kid from the hood, Gustavo (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) is a stoic Mexican wrestler fighting for chump change and Teddy (Carter Hudson) is an ambitious Caucasian government agent who wants out from behind a desk.  Despite their many differences, they each somehow end up seeing cocaine as the key that will either unlock their respective destinies or seal their respective fates.  And even though their storylines are all told independent of each other, almost all of it takes places in the greater Los Angeles area of California, so their paths serendipitously cross from time to time.

Snowfall has a surprisingly HBO-style tone for an FX show, although it is an appropriate one.  Where there’s blow there will also be nudity, blood, violence and profanity, and that’s fine by me, because those are all things I like tuning in for.  Not a single character performance is phoned in, and that fact combined with the tenacious attention to detail by the production staff truly brings the eighties to life.  Singleton and Amadio aren’t bringing viewers a caricature of one of the most culturally and politically impactful decades ever; they’re placing them in the middle of it.  The authenticity of it all -- the danger, the angst, the clothes and of course, the music -- makes it impossible not to get emotionally invested in the genuine humanity of these somewhat shady characters.  It reminds me of Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood and how in spite of the fact that Ice Cube’s character Doughboy was undeniably deserving of an orange jumpsuit, part of you couldn’t help but feel for him.

The fact that this show is fictional actually gives it a special leg up on other coke-centric programs like Univision’s El Chapo and Netflix’s Narcos, mainly because history has already told us how those stories play out.  With Snowfall I have no idea what’s going to happen, because none of it has ever happened.  Is Franklin eventually going to catch a bullet?  Beats me.  What about Teddy?  Will he end up in jail?  Not a clue.  Has Gustavo gone too deep with the wrong people?  Your guess is as good as mine.  The quality of storytelling in this series rivals that of feature films, and with directors like Daniel Attias (The Wire, The Americans), Michael Lehmann (True Blood, Chance), Hiro Murai (Atlanta) and Singleton himself (among many talented others) it’s easy to see why.

The only thing we know for sure is that 1983 is just before the crack cocaine epidemic hits the U.S. in a big, bad way, and Snowfall is one exploration of that time period that’s more entertaining than any documentary could ever be.

Snowfall is telecast Wednesday at 10 p.m. on FX.

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