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'Snowfall': FX's New Drama About The Crack Epidemic In Los Angeles


Turning to TV now, "Snowfall" is a new series that debuts on the FX channel Wednesday. It offers a fictional take on the rise of crack cocaine in Los Angeles. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says the show sometimes trips over itself while telling the story of an unlikely alliance which devastated urban America.


RONNIE HUDSON: (Singing) California knows how to party.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: The best thing about "Snowfall" is the way it recreates the rhythms of life in 1983-era South Central Los Angeles. It's a time before the poor mostly black and brown neighborhood became an international symbol as a place ravaged by gang violence and the drug trade. "Snowfall" introduces us to neighborhood kid Franklin Saint living up to his name, taking flack from his friends for stopping little kids from shoplifting candy.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) What? You a narc now, cuz (ph)?

DAMSON IDRIS: (As Franklin Saint) No, man. Punks was stealing candy.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Why you care if some little kids is running over some Ring Pops, man?

IDRIS: (As Franklin Saint) No. They got to learn, ain't how America work.

DEGGANS: As it turns out, Franklin's a bit of a hypocrite. He attends high school in a better neighborhood and earns cash on the side selling marijuana to his rich white classmates. His friends in South Central don't understand why he's still hanging around working as a clerk in a local bodega.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) What was the point of you going out to that fancy school in the Valley if you was going to bail on college and stay around here?

IDRIS: (As Franklin Saint) You even know how I felt in that fancy school in the Valley? Like an outsider.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) There's black colleges.

IDRIS: (As Franklin Saint) On the other side of the country.


IDRIS: (As Franklin Saint) Mom could barely heal it when I was staying in the Valley. I ain't leaving her here.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) Oh, so you are after something?

IDRIS: (As Franklin Saint) Freedom. Freedom from all that.

DEGGANS: Guess what he eventually starts selling to earn that freedom? "Snowfall" co-creator, writer and director John Singleton has made a career of representing Los Angeles in films like "Boyz N The Hood" and on TV in FX's "People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story." So it's no wonder this show's eye for '80s-era South Central is authentic and compelling, but "Snowfall" has a bigger vision. It's actually telling three complex intertwining stories. There's Franklin and his friends trying to figure out how to sell cocaine in a poor neighborhood where weed is cheaper.

There's Lucia and Pedro, grown children of Mexican crime lords in East Los Angeles who want their own source of cocaine to set up their own empire. And there's Teddy, a frustrated CIA agent who's asked for help by a member of the rebel group in Nicaragua called the Contras. In the show, Congress has yanked public support for the Contras, so a member of the group suggests raising money a different way - by secretly bringing cocaine to America with help from the CIA.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Your government came to my country, organized the strangers, encouraged us to fight. And then one day, your Congress just changed its mind.

CARTER HUDSON: (As Teddy McDonald) I understand that.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Do you understand that right now there are literally thousands of soldiers in the jungle waiting for me to deliver supplies and weapons? They are hungry and sick. And if I fail, they will die.

DEGGANS: The idea that the Contras and the CIA helped fuel the crack epidemic in America was suggested in real life by investigative journalist Gary Webb. He wrote a series of newspaper stories and a book called "Dark Alliance." Critics challenge the work, and Webb committed suicide in 2004, but the notion is a powerful one for a TV series. Still, "Snowfall" struggles to capitalize on a strong concept. There are lots of characters packed into three storylines that rarely intersect. And Frankie (ph) veers wildly from smart and gutsy to clueless and overwound, sometimes in the same scene.

It wouldn't take much to push "Snowfall" from good to great - faster storytelling and simpler, more integrated storylines. Until and unless that happens later in the season - critics just saw the first six episodes - "Snowfall" runs the risk of becoming a curious exercise of nostalgia which falls just short of its potential. I'm Eric Deggans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.