What “Snowfall” has in spades — besides fresh white powder, anyway — is atmosphere. It’s summer in South Central Los Angeles, and hazy golden light filters through the smog and palm trees. The camera makes the most of it, luxuriating in orange glow and sunlit lens flares, giving this neighborhood, as yet untouched by crack, the sheen of paradise. Executive producer John Singleton has often depicted the idiosyncratic camaraderie of black neighborhoods in his work, and as usual he renders it to the screen with singular intimacy. “Snowfall’s” Los Angeles is oversaturated with aviator sunglasses and tidy little mustaches. Rich white people, in their mansions and industry enclaves, jump into swimming pools. Poor Mexican immigrants sleep in their cars after jobbing all day. Police make a show of stopping in black and Latino neighborhoods, and tough guys in muscle tees beat up intruders they don’t like the look of. Class and race and geography cuts in all the ways we know it does, but as “Snowfall” works to show, it’s also a relatively calm life in South Central. Unfair, but calm.
In this calm, Franklin Saint (Damson Idris), a part-time stockboy and weed runner, sees an opportunity to turn around a brick of cocaine. It starts as an errand — he goes to a house to pick up $200 worth of powder for his rich friend’s girlfriend. The distributor, a cantankerous murderer named Avi (Alon Moni Aboutboul), tells him to scram — and he almost does. But something makes him turn around and level up his trade — from a packet to a brick, from $200 to $12,000. Franklin is the type of teenager who sees a little more than most: He went to a more integrated high school; he knows — but feels alienated from — rich families in the Valley. As we learn in the pilot, he decided not to go to college because he didn’t want to feel like an outsider again. The deal seems worth it to him, so he takes it. And he makes it work: He gets a gun pointed at him a few times, and he has to smooth-talk his way out of more than one rough spot, but through ingenuity and connections and chutzpah, he pulls it off, with a few thousand extra of profit just for him. He sits with his bag of money, looks out the window, and starts to cry. He knows what he has to do. But he’s also just a scared kid.
“Snowfall” is a slow, beautiful show, and it shines when Franklin is at its center. Idris, a young British actor, gives Franklin a still, tense potential energy that flits away when he’s smiling or laughing. He steals every frame he’s in — and it’s his friends, his family, and his community that make up the most lived-in and enjoyable elements of “Snowfall.”
But the show isn’t just about Franklin, and though the show is very skillfully made and impeccably performed overall, it suffers a little from the bloated storytelling issues that are currently endemic to the industry. To be clear, it’s almost good enough to make that breadth worth it — the pilot, after all, is certainly worth it. Directed by Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah and written by creators and EPs Singleton, Dave Andron, and Eric Amadio, it’s a 57-minute introduction to “Snowfall,” and introduces three major storylines that barely intersect at all in the first six episodes released to critics. Along with Franklin’s harrowing journey, “Snowfall” follows Oso (Sergio Peris-Mancheta), a penniless wrestler who hustles money for a few rich druglords, and Teddy (Carter Hudson), an exiled CIA officer who discovers an off-book cocaine smuggling operation, run and approved by the CIA, to fund the right-wing, anti-Sandinista Contras in Nicaragua. Oso’s life changes dramatically when he’s introduced to the captivating and ambitious Lucia (Emily Rios), who is cleverly and carefully plotting a takeover of an entire cartel. All are compelling performers (Rios, for one, is staggering) but it’s a lot of complicated story, and unlike Franklin’s very straightforward trajectory, the other characters’ motivations are deliberately opaque or outright secret. It makes their stories harder to follow; Oso and Lucia’s story feels like it needs a road map. As compelling as the characters can be — and as interesting a spin on history “Snowfall” presents — it’s hard to understand why the show isn’t just about Idris’ phenomenal Franklin.
The answer may be simply that the show’s writers and producers — including showrunner Andron and veteran drama producer Thomas Schlamme — are just excited about the material. Other dramas cram extraneous detail into their hourlongs to pad out a slim idea, but “Snowfall” feels more like the show’s writers are tripping over themselves to include ever more fascinating details about this world into each episode. The fifth episode, “seven-four,” written by Jerome Hairston and directed by Lawrence Trilling, is arguably totally unnecessary — and yet, in depicting three very different Fourth of July celebrations, it evinces a nimble curiosity about its very different characters that proves for an unexpected, interesting hour. It’s hard to not feel the obvious consideration put into the show, which is so consciously diverse, occasionally daring, and gritty without sacrificing empathy. But it’s unfocused enough that sometimes a gut-wrenching moment is followed by a few scenes of apparent meandering.
All of “Snowfall’s” raw material is good, and the show will likely improve as all three storylines develop emotionally grounded layers. At the very least, it is hard not to feel transported to a specific time and place, to see what one particular teenage boy sees when he accepts a dangerous package.