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Beneath Its Entertaining Surface, ‘Snowfall’ Reveals Hard Truths

How Dave Andron, Walter Mosley and star Damson Idris helped elevate John Singleton’s crime drama to one of TV’s best

Courtesy of FX
Courtesy of FX

When John Singleton co-created the FX crime series “Snowfall,” he aimed to use a drama about the drug trade to tell a deeper story about life in South Central Los Angeles — and America in general.

“Snowfall” hit that bull’s-eye. But few could have imagined how successful it would be as the coming-out party for actor Damson Idris.

Idris stars as Franklin Saint, who over the course of four seasons, before viewers’ eyes, has transformed from an innocent teen dreaming of college to a fearless but troubled drug kingpin.

Idris was no stranger to acting having experienced success in the U.K. However, he knew that if he got the role, “Snowfall” would grow his skills and push him to dig deep.

He knew that “if done right, [the role of Saint] could stand beside the Michael Corleones, the Tony Montanas, the Frank Lucases.” And his performance has earned raves from critics. “As Saint, Idris is nothing short of captivating,” wrote Kevin L. Clark in Essence. “He brings weight and complexity to the role and utilizes the space in between the lines that will ensure his longevity in this business.”

And over those four years of “Snowfall,” Idris has also changed. “As an actor, I have seen my growth from boy to man, inexperienced artist to confident artist, follower to leader.”

Idris’ talent and impact are clear to “Snowfall” co-creator Dave Andron as well.

“Damson just has that thing,” says Andron. “You connect with him emotionally. You believe the words coming out of his mouth. You can’t take your eyes off of him.” Andron marvels how audiences care for Saint and root for him even while he’s “doing awful things.”

Singleton, who died in April 2019, had a knack for looking back at the past and connecting it to the future. With “Snowfall,” he created a compelling, relevant narrative around the drug trade. People working on the series say it is much more than a crime show. Idris, for example, observes, “It is deeply rooted in real experiences of a minority group in America, a truth that has been tainted and misrepresented by the world for so long.”

Singleton believed deeply that “Snowfall” would connect with people on a deeper level than simple entertainment. “John understood the importance of one’s past, the power of nostalgia, and how many of the problems in 1980s South Central have directly led to the troubled moment we find ourselves in today,” says Andron.

Lazy loaded image
Courtesy of FX

On one level, “Snowfall” is about the U.S. government trying to fund a war by selling and providing drugs to the Black community and beyond. But it is also about the impact that this drug trade has on the lives of real people. Singleton knew if he could get viewers to care about the people, he could get them to care about the situation.

“I don’t think you can overstate what John meant to this show,” says Andron. “From the impact his presence had on our writers, cast, and crew, to the credibility and recognition that his name brought to the project, his imprint is all over it, in every way.”

Executive producer and writer Walter Mosley says Singleton “looked into the mirror of his life and saw the tragedy and struggle of this show.” He adds, “John was faithful to his people and the neighborhoods that spawned him. ‘Snowfall’ has the same faith.”

Idris credits the writers with building characters, not caricatures, giving each an arc and a personality, and making the show an ensemble piece. The actor says, “The thing I love most about the writing on ‘Snowfall’ is how we are able to weave the various storylines together.”

As one of the writers, Andron is modest about his work, but he acknowledges, “The approach is simple: Keep the show as grounded and informative as possible while making it as entertaining and emotional as possible.” Viewers noticed, too; midway into Season 4, viewership was up 41% in total viewers from Season 3. No wonder “Snowfall” has already been renewed for Season 5.

Andron, Idris and Mosley have all speculated as to why “Snowfall” has resonated so well with audiences. Andron hopes that “it’s resonated because it’s a well-told story about the devastation of an underrepresented community and an indictment of our flawed systems of government.” Idris says, “The show is able to inform conversations today about community, culture and equity by addressing the racial tensions of the ’80s and how it links to today.” Mosley, for his part, speculates “Snowfall” tells a hard truth in a way people “couldn’t articulate before.”

Whatever the reason, it is clear that “Snowfall” has established a strong following among viewers and critics alike. As Julian Kimble wrote for “The Ringer,” “For years, ‘Snowfall’ has been the best show you aren’t watching — now it’s blossoming into something you can’t miss. … A narrowed focus, increased drama, and quicker pace have quietly made [‘Snowfall’] one of the best shows on TV.”