Making your pilot stand out in this day and age of TV consumption isn’t an easy thing. Avoiding familiar narrative trappings, or even the usual problems that come with a pilot like relying on exposition to establish a firm ground for the season’s arcs, can make or break a season early on. Spend too much time setting up your story rather than telling it, or settling into an overly predictable groove rather than offering up something fresh and exciting, and you risk losing a potential audience, one that has a bevy of entertainment options to choose from across numerous devices.

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FX’s latest drama Snowfall, which takes a large-scope look at the rise of crack cocaine in 1980s Los Angeles, and boasts Boyz N The Hood director John Singleton as a co-creator, producer, and occasional writer and director, doesn’t exactly offer up something completely new. Telling a story about the drug trade where every character on each side of the law has a morality that’s complicated by social, economic, and bureaucratic factors isn’t unexplored territory on television. With that said, what Snowfall does offer is something perhaps much more valuable in the age of Peak TV: a confident vision and compelling atmosphere from the get-go.

Obviously that’s not enough to drive a whole 10-episode season, but it does mean that the series premiere doesn’t suffer from the usual pilot problems. Instead, “Pilot” feels immediately lived in. In the show’s very first scene, set in South Central in 1983, a group of kids swindle a portly ice cream truck driver, running off with a few ice cream sandwiches while seemingly everyone in the neighborhood, outside where perhaps the air isn’t quite as humid as it is inside, looks on with equal parts disinterest and amusement. The kids don’t get far before Franklin Saint, recent high school graduate and small-time weed dealer, stops the kids and gets them to return the stolen goods. Franklin’s friends ride up to him and call him a narc, while he hits back and says that the kids have to learn that America doesn’t work that way; you don’t just take from others. Then, the camera swoops out and up, taking in the whole bustling neighborhood before moving above the palm trees and framing the expanse of the city before smashing to the title card. Immediately Snowfall establishes its tone and atmosphere; it’s a stirring sequence that draws you into this time and place, and for the most part, the rest of “Pilot” follows through on the promise of its first scene.

Essentially, three separate stories emerge in the pilot, each one meant to offer up a slightly different perspective on the rise of crack cocaine in Los Angeles in the ’80s. There’s the aforementioned Francis Saint, who, when he’s not flirting with the literal girl next door, spends his time supplying weed to his rich white friends from a fancy high school he recently graduated from and, in a bold and terrifying scene, is now looking to be a middleman for Israeli gangster and blow dealer Avi Drexler. On the other side of the law is a disgraced CIA Agent, Teddy McDonald, who finds himself thrust back into a complicated war on drugs when an old friend of his ends up dead and is revealed to be part of a CIA-backed operation to keep coke flowing. Falling somewhere in the middle is Gustavo “El Oso” Zapata, an aging luchador looking to work his way into a prominent cartel family, and who suddenly finds himself with a dead body on his hands when a robbery goes wrong.

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These characters don’t cross paths in any meaningful way in the premiere—Franklin does get an autograph from his favorite luchador though—but they do represent the show’s central theme: that “good guys and bad guys” don’t exist in this world. For every wrong turn a character takes in the premiere you can find justification for their action. Franklin’s story is the most compelling by far. Damson Idris turns in an incredible performance, infusing Franklin with a balance of charisma and vulnerability that immediately makes us invested in his character arc. We come to understand Franklin’s thirst for money and power not as some journey to stroke his ego and establish himself as a powerful gangster like Avi, but rather as a way to subvert a system that stacks the cards against anyone that shares his skin color. It’s noble in its own way, but there’s another motivation that’s more dangerous. The final scene in the episode reveals Franklin’s father to be homeless, and perhaps an addict, wandering the streets of Los Angeles. Franklin watches his father cross in front of his Auntie’s car late at night, and tears immediately fill his eyes. It’s clear that while Franklin is looking to make a broken system work for him and his community, he’s also trying to distance himself from his father and forge his own path forward. That could be empowering motivation, or just the kind of emotional hang-up that’ll put Franklin in danger down the road.

If the season premiere of Snowfall was focused solely on Franklin, it’d likely be one of the better drama pilots of the year, if not the last few years, but the other characters are operating on shakier ground. Essentially, there are elements within the premiere that, despite the nuanced and complex story of Franklin, risk pushing the show into rote and complacent territory. Teddy, for instance, is a bit of a stale archetype: a sad white man looking to redeem himself in the eyes of his employer and his family. Then there’s Avi, whose overblown gangster lifestyle and bravado is delivered with barely a shred of knowing irony; he’s a bit too much, even if his lone scene is wonderfully tense. These are small quibbles in an otherwise solid premiere, but left to fester they could prove fatal. Still, Snowfall‘s season premiere largely has a voice that feels confident and all its own. If it can wrangle its trite storytelling devices and embrace the nuance given to Franklin’s emotional and physical journey, FX could have something compelling on its hands.

Stray observations

  • Welcome to weekly reviews of Snowfall! As you can tell from the review above, I think the pilot does a damn good job setting up an interesting, living, breathing story, and having seen the first three episodes of the season, I can say that the show continues to coalesce as it moves along. With all of that said, if you’re liking the show and the reviews, please do share on them Twitter or Facebook whenever possible, and maybe even briefly turn off that adblocker. That’s how we keep weekly reviews alive at this place!
  • As one of The A.V. Club’s wrestling reviewers, and just a general fan of everything wrestling, I have to say that the wrestling scenes with El Oso are wonderfully shot. Visceral and magical.
  • Of course “Monkey Man” is a music cue here. Not that I’m complaining.
  • Teddy is in some serious exile. That office looks like its lone purpose is shredding paper.
  • Aunt Louie is certainly a standout supporting character in the early going. “I told you not to fuck that girl without me. Now look at you.”
  • Hopefully future episodes give us more of Franklin’s mother, Cissy, because she seems to be living a complicated, intriguing life.
  • “I was thinking about how good your white phone voice got.”
  • Leon wants to know why Franklin wouldn’t just stay in the neighborhood with all his rich, white friends. “It ain’t home.”
  • Aunt Louie gives Franklin an easy out when it comes to offloading Avi’s coke, saying it’d be safest to just introduce Avi to her hookup then turn right around and go back to selling weed. Franklin’s determined to be the middleman though, to make sure that someone from the community is benefitting from the product coming in, rather than having an outsider exploit the community for their own gain.
  • Uncle Jerome doesn’t like the risk-reward ratio that comes with dealing coke. The money isn’t enough. “Money ain’t nothing but the paper with them cracker’s faces on it.”
  • Two tense situations in a single day show that Franklin is pretty damn cool and collected when a gun’s being pointed at him. Whether that’s helpful or dangerous when it comes to his future dealings, time will tell.

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