Snowfall's gripping plot is failed by its sketchy character developments

John Singleton who has experienced the epidemic first hand brought it back on TV but with loosely knitted characters and a lack of insanity involving the crack business.


                            Snowfall's gripping plot is failed by its sketchy character developments

Filipe Valle Costa, who plays the role of Pedro Nava in John Singleton's drama 'Snowfall' about crack-cocaine epidemic in 80s LA, pretty much sums up the FX series in exclusive interview with Meaww, when he said: "Pedro is very much an example of those families who have the ability to make the drug move through the city. Through the connection that they already have. So Pedro is really going against the will of his father, and going into the world of cocaine and crack cocaine, and you know, I think he is one of those young people who is not fully aware of what they are doing, what they were getting into, this new drug and they didn't know how it will affect people's lives. But that's the reality."

And the reality had struck hard not just Los Angeles, but San Diego, Houston and the Caribbean during the late 70s and 80s when crack-cocaine became the everyday fantasy of the American youth.

Singleton, almost 26 years after his teenhood drama film 'Boyz n the Hood' that told the story about three childhood friends struggling to cope with the crack epidemic in Los Angeles, treads similar grounds to bring to screen a similar tale about a group of individuals trying to clamber up the social ladder by selling the drug, which brought enormous destruction to an entire community and society at large. 

Singleton's 'Boyz n the Hood' told the story of three childhood friends who struggled to cope with the crack epidemic of the 80's. (IMDb)
Singleton's 'Boyz n the Hood' told the story of three childhood friends who struggled to cope with the crack epidemic of the 80's. (IMDb)

Singleton, who was the first African-American to have been nominated for Best Director in the Oscars for 'Boyz n the Hood,' brings his directing acumen to revisit the harrowing period in Calfornia's recent history in 'Snowfall'. The show chiefly follows Franklin Saint (played by the baby-faced Damson Idris) who upgrades himself from selling marijuana to the local neighborhood to becoming a cocaine dealer for the rich and the influential.

The calm-faced Saint, who can easily pass off as just another good boy in the neighborhood, is always aware of where the actual money lay, and this very conscious decision to sell the drug and make money in order to support his family is what gives 'Snowfall' its plane for moral contemplation.

Although the show largely concentrates on the disintegration of a society under the onslaught of a drug epidemic, it somehow fails to give the audience what it had promised - delirium.

In spite of a promising cast who play the various characters with absolute zeal, the delirious vigor which took over life in the 80s is missing. 'Snowfall' tries to weave together the stories of three major characters - the teenager Franklin, the Mexican drug princess Lucia Villanueva (played by Emily Rios), and Teddy McDonald (played by Carter Hudson), who finds himself amid guerilla warfare as he tries to reform himself from a disgraced CIA agent to an expert in the California drug trade. 

'Snowfall' once again take its viewers back to the 80's when crack was the chief ingredient for teenage fantasy. (IMDb)
'Snowfall' once again take its viewers back to the 80's when crack was the chief ingredient for teenage fantasy. (IMDb)

Singleton has carefully placed each of these characters from various sections of the society into appropriate settings - the streets where most of the dealing and the killings take place, the boss who doesn't mind shooting a kid at point blank range, and the man of law who is trying his best to subvert it.

In spite of the interesting character sketches, Singleton seems to have missed out on the details. Throughout the first three episodes of the first season, the three chief characters are seen paving their way into the drug world, each committing an irreversible crime, yet their background stories are not strong enough to justify their actions. 

Saint certainly grabs the audience's sympathy, and they at times feel sorry for him and at times wish him to just turn back on his heels and choose a better path.

Although his story requires a massive leap of faith in order to bring the character to a full circle, yet the credit must go to Idris for flawlessly carrying out the half-weaved character.

Saint is in the very center of the crisis -- the one that everyone can vouch for considering he was once a promising graduate student, and like most youths of the 80s who succumbed to the epidemic. What Singleton misses to clarify is if Saint's decision to sell drugs instead of carrying on with his education was a personal choice or an imposed one. 

Saint is the representation of all those young people who threw away their lives for crack. (IMDb)
Saint is the representation of all those young people who threw away their lives for crack. (IMDb)

It is clear that the drug epidemic hit that segment of the society hardest which was already suffering from a severe financial crisis in the era. When the white residents moved out of South Central Los Angeles in the 1960s, the left out black and Latino communities soon found themselves in an open world where they were free to choose any trade they wanted.

Crack, which was formed by combining cocaine with baking soda to allow quick absorption into the bloodstream, became the chief selling commodity for the community. Negative policing under the 13th Amendment and underfunded education system drove this particular community to search for easier ways to make money. This very struggle is absent in the development of Saint's character.  

While on one hand, Idris' performance gives Saint's character that required edge, Lucia's story takes a more common ground as its origin. As the daughter of a Mexican drug lord, she struggles to change her family's business from selling marijuana to becoming the biggest dealers in crack cocaine. The money-obsessed woman, however, finds herself constantly being ignored by the male members of the family who conventionally hold the upper hand in the business.

Lucia is also asked by her mother to keep her head low and not to meddle with the "men's business". However, Lucia along with her cousin Pedro partake of their share of the dirty works, the killings, the robbings and the deceiving. As her first role as a villain, Rios completely got in touch with the darker aspect of her own self as she merged with Lucia when she gave out the orders of the secret killings. In an interview with Vogue, Rios had mentioned: "It’s fun to play, but I wish at that point I had known some kind of method of acting—because I never studied it—on how to let it go at the end of the day.”

As the daughter of a Mexican drug lord, Lucia tried to push the family business from marijuana to crack cocaine. (IMDb)
As the daughter of a Mexican drug lord, Lucia tried to push the family business from marijuana to crack cocaine. (IMDb)

Lucia's character, a lot like Saint's, is one of those who probably was not completely aware of what they were doing, and this state of unawareness is considered to be the chief reason behind the criminalization of an entire generation aided by police brutality and mass incarceration. When Gary Webb published his three-part investigative report in San Jose Mercury News, which was later turned into a book titled 'Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion', it was revealed that several CIA agents were involved in selling tons of cocaine in the United States and would later ship the profits to the CIA-run army of Nicaraguan Contras. It exposed the Contra operatives who reportedly bought cocaine from the Colombian drug cartels and passed it on to various other drug networks in the US. 

The character of Teddy McDonald is the vehicle to cover this ground as he is shown to partner up with a Central Amercian rebel, Alejandro Usteves (played by Juan Javier Cárdenas). 'Snowfall' seems to have taken this conspiracy at mere face value since once again there is no background to McDonald. Although he is much more relatable as compared to the other characters, yet there are no hints to the mysterious breakdown which lead McDonald to involve himself in the eye of the epidemic.

As an undercover agent who tries to track illegal immigrants, McDonald finds himself thrust amid guerilla warfare and drowns deeper into the consequences of the epidemic. Probably giving a more detailed background to McDonald would help clarify his struggle, as until now he seems to be nothing but a CIA agent in a dilemma. 

Through McDonald, it seems 'Snowfall' has taken the CIA conspiracy at face value. (IMDb)
Through McDonald, it seems 'Snowfall' has taken the CIA conspiracy at face value. (IMDb)

'Snowfall' has the potential to be one of the best TV shows streaming right now. It has a strong storyline, a promising cast, and certainly, Singleton's sun-splashed LA as a background which provides shades to the dubious lifestyles of its characters. However, the delirious ups and downs in a character sketch that seem to make for compelling watch seem to have been missed out upon, and that has failed to give the characters the clarity they require. The lack of background details has led the characters to concentrate less on the action - which obviously has slowed down the pace of the series - and more on moral contemplation, which should have appeared much later in the series. Hopefully, season 2 which starts to air on July 19 will give the characters the needed time to grow into their audience. 

Watch the trailer for Season 2 below: