Sprawling ‘Snowfall’ Tells The Origin Story Of Crack In ’80s Los Angeles

“You know what a cliche is?” someone asks Franklin Saint (Damson Idris) midway through the first season of FX’s ’80s drama Snowfall, before proceeding to tell him a cliche about the cocaine business young Franklin is choosing to enter.

Lines like that are a double-edged sword for any writer. On the one hand, they acknowledge that a particular idea will sound familiar to the audience, and that the storytellers are aware of that and have some tricks up their sleeves to make what was cliche seem new and fresh. On the other, they not only call even more attention to the cliches, they all but demand that you deliver that implied fresh spin. And if you don’t, then you’re just a cliche that knows it’s a cliche.

It’s a problem throughout Snowfall, which debuts tonight at 10 (I’ve seen all 10 episodes of the first season). The series, which carries the tagline “How crack began,” has style and a strong lead performance from Idris, but it’s too familiar, especially early on, of other, better drug sagas — more methadone than the real fix.

Co-created by John Singleton, Eric Amadio, and Justified vet Dave Andron, Snowfall begins nearly a decade before Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood made South Central LA a familiar movie location. The neighborhoods here are still clean and bright and relatively peaceful, and Franklin — a prodigy who has attended a rich white private school across town — makes a little extra cash helping his uncle Jerome (Amin Joseph, one of several actors on the show sporting impressive jheri curl) sell weed, in between other jobs at a pharmacy and helping his mother Cissy (Michael Hyatt) manage local apartment buildings. He doesn’t try to level up into a more lucrative and dangerous form of drug-dealing to escape a terrible circumstance, but rather stumbles into it from a pretty happy life because one of his white friends asks him, as a favor, to visit Israeli coke trafficker Avi (Alon Aboutboul, taking style tips from Alfred Molina in Boogie Nights). Franklin’s neighborhood turns out to be virgin territory for Avi’s product, but also a challenge because, as Jerome and other characters keep pointing out, cocaine is a drug for rich white men, and too expensive for South Central.

Franklin’s trial-and-error entree into this new field plays out in parallel with two other storylines. In one, disgraced CIA operative Teddy McDonald (Carter Hudson) gets a second chance when he teams up with Nicaraguan freedom fighter Alejandro Usteves (Javier Cardenas) in a scheme to use drug money to buy weapons for the Contras. In the other, hulking luchador(*) Gustavo (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) becomes muscle for Lucia Villanueva (Emily Rios) and her cousin Pedro Nava (Filipe Valle Costa) as they try to start a side business under the noses of their Mexican cartel power player fathers.

(*) The show leaves Gustavo’s former career in the ring as “El Oso” behind pretty quickly, but it’s still a pretty good summer for fictionalized depictions of ’80s wrestling.

The three-pronged narrative is attempting to show how a variety of factions — spy and crook, schoolkid and soldier, black and brown — with wildly different agendas all came together to inadvertently unleash a blight on inner cities in the form of an incredibly cheap and addictive drug like crack. But all three feel increasingly familiar in different ways. Other than Hyatt (best known as Brianna Barksdale from The Wire) and a scene in Wednesday’s premiere where Franklin says “the game’s rigged,” the show doesn’t directly quote from its many cinematic predecessors, but it paraphrases a lot, presenting competent approximations of the kinds of characters (a wild card who proves far more violent than expected) and situations (an inconvenient body to be disposed of) that play half as tribute, half as obligation.

The show’s pacing oddly feels sluggish and rushed at the same time, lingering over certain tasks and story beats as if the creators are leaning on the Breaking Bad model as all of these neophytes learn the drug trade moment by moment, but then oddly jumping over story points in a way that had me frequently checking to be sure I hadn’t skipped an episode by mistake. Some of the slowness is meant to better establish the characters before things turn too crazy, so we get to see Teddy try to reconcile with a fellow agent with whom he has a baby son, or watch Franklin reach out to his estranged father (Leftovers alum Kevin Carroll), but the only one who really seems to come to life is Franklin, thanks more to the sheer charisma of Damson Idris(*) than to writing that can leave his motivations and feelings vague at best. And even by recent “it’s really a 10-hour movie” standards, waiting until the seventh episode of your crack origin story to actually introduce crack feels like a poor allocation of time; it’s not a coincidence that the show perks up significantly over those last four hours once that version of the product becomes part of the story.

(*) It’s not a rule that an American TV drug epic has to feature a UK actor with Idris in his name, but it doesn’t hurt.

Singleton doesn’t direct until the finale, but the team of Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah do strong work setting a visual template through the first two episodes. You may occasionally feel dizzy at the number of 360 spins the camera makes during moments of conflict, but there’s an immediacy to the action that’s welcome, and the show never overdoes it in showing the idyllic nature of South Central pre-crack. And Singleton gets behind the camera to make sure the season’s climactic emotional moments land as hard as they can, even if the set-up — particularly in the CIA thread, which feels more and more extraneous as time goes on — isn’t always thrilling.

Snowfall‘s not a bad drama at this stage, just more generic than it should be, especially on a channel known for making old TV ideas feel brand-new. Given time, Andron and the others may be able to make a Halt and Catch Firestyle creative pivot into what’s specifically interesting about this ’80s story. But the bottomless public appetite for crime and/or drug stories could give FX a hit even without improvement. That’s the other thing about cliches, whether you point them out or not: they become cliches because people like them enough to keep using them again and again and again.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@uproxx.com