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Snowfall, FX's new drama about the rise of crack, is a slow and steady burn

This show won’t hook you right away. But it’s worth sticking with it.

Malcolm Mays (from left), Damson Idris, and Isaiah John play Los Angeles teenagers whose lives are about to be altered by the rise of crack in Snowfall.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The term “procedural,” when it was first coined, meant a crime drama that focused heavily on the procedure behind solving a crime. For a recent example, just think of CSI, where every episode delved into the science involved in analyzing evidence found at crime scenes.

But because the word “procedural” came to be so heavily associated with the CSIs of the world, it separated from its original meaning somewhere in the mid-2000s and came to mean “any show where there’s a case of the week and relatively self-contained episodes.” House was a “medical procedural,” for instance, and even a show like Castle, which typically solved a crime each week but had little interest in the science and procedure of crime-solving, came to be known as one.

And yet that original definition of procedural is the best one to apply to FX’s new series Snowfall, a deliberate, dense, heavily serialized drama about the rise of crack in early ‘80s Los Angeles. There’s nothing this show loves more than showing viewers the process as it chronicles the origins of various systems that sprung up to move drugs through South and Central America up into American cities.

The series hails from director John Singleton (the man behind Boyz n the Hood, the Shaft remake, and some of the best hours of TV of the past few years), along with several of the people who made FX’s earlier, terrific crime drama Justified, another show fascinated with the processes and systems propping up the sorts of communities not often seen on TV. (Justified was centered on rural Kentucky.)

Snowfall isn’t as good as Justified just yet, but it’s also almost immediately its own thing. Watching its first season, I found myself frustrated by the show’s insistence on taking its time, but also lured in by it. It’s not instantly great TV, but it’s instantly confident TV, and that counts for a lot.

Snowfall might remind you of the films of Michael Mann

Emily Rios stars as Lucia Villanueva, daughter of a crime boss.

In its fascination with the people caught up in the midst of global systems that don’t particularly care whether they live or die, Snowfall recalls the work of Michael Mann, director of films like The Insider, The Last of the Mohicans, and Miami Vice. (Mann also created the distinctive visual style of the original TV version of Miami Vice.)

Mann’s work is best known for its gleaming surfaces and cool detachment. His films often position the director as a god gazing down upon his creations, chuckling at their attempts to live out their days. Snowfall doesn’t really ape his visual style. It’s firmly rooted in the perspective of those on the ground, looking up to see the giant foot that’s coming to squash them and hoping they have time to roll out of the way.

But the series does share some of Mann’s thematic preoccupations. Everybody in Snowfall is complicit in building a horrible, multi-armed monster that will eventually devour many lives whole. But because they’re all only focused on their one particular arm, they don’t dare spend much time trying to suss out the full picture. That willful blindness to the big picture — the desire to pretend what you’re doing has nothing to do with all those people dying over there — is straight out of Mann’s playbook, as are all of the brooding men furrowing their brows over the weight of so much crime.

The result is that Snowfall, like Mann’s films, moves very slowly. I’ve seen the entire first season, and it’s clear that the show is in no hurry to get to the part where crack has become an epidemic across American cities, and all of the characters are forced to cope with what they’ve done. Season one is concerned only with the early days of the drug, and Snowfall relies heavily on the audience to fill in the dark trajectory of where things are going. It takes a long time for one of the characters in the show to first utter the word “crack” in relation to the drug. As in, it doesn’t even happen in the first episode. Or in the second episode. Or even in the fourth episode. (You get the idea.)

That deliberate quality is fine when the show focuses on its more interesting characters, especially teenager Franklin Saint (Damson Idris), who falls into the life of a drug dealer almost too easily, and Lucia Villanueva (Emily Rios of Breaking Bad and The Bridge), the daughter of a crime boss who’s determined to stake her own claim to the family business.

Teddy even needs to wear more original sunglasses.

It can feel trying when it gets mired in its third parallel story, about the CIA’s involvement in the drug trade, focused on troubled agent Teddy McDonald (Carter Hudson), who seems to embody every crime story cliché out there, right down to the family he wishes he could devote himself to if his work would just stop getting in the way.

The biggest obstacle Snowfall faces in becoming everything it could be is that it marries its very deliberate pacing to characters who feel like placeholders that the show is planning to fill in later.

The series isn’t just about Franklin, Lucia, and Teddy — though they’re all leads, given roughly equal weight. It’s also about all of the people around them, and since direct interactions between their three storylines are relatively thin in Snowfall’s early going, the show clearly feels the need to sketch in very broad strokes for most of the first season, only offering the slightest shades of character depth deep into the run. (Trust me, though: That depth shows up eventually.)

Thus, Snowfall will try your patience in many different ways, with perhaps too few payoffs to truly be “worth it.” And yet I found myself becoming more and more engaged with every new hour of the show. To understand why, you have to look at another source Snowfall cribs from, a show that seemingly has nothing in common with it.

Snowfall is one of the first TV shows to learn the right lessons from Game of Thrones

The advice that most of TV seems to have gleaned from HBO’s Game of Thrones, perhaps the defining hit of the 2010s, is that killing off lots of characters is good, and if you can make those deaths unexpected, that’s even better. But the more TV indulges in these sorts of deaths, the more the trope curdles into something exhausting.

Snowfall has its share of character deaths, but they’re presented not as the show’s reason for existence but as a natural offshoot of its setting. What it’s taken from Game of Thrones is the notion that people will watch a show about a big, sprawling world if you give all of the characters a connection to that world and plenty of opportunities for the actions of one character to ripple outward to a completely different character in a completely different setting. (This recalls another drug-focused drama, Breaking Bad, though that earlier series’ world was more contained than Snowfall’s.) Snowfall keeps its three protagonists mostly separate, but it also offers ample opportunities to see how they’re all approaching the same problems and the same systems from different angles.

Franklin tries to persuade his uncle, Jerome (Amin Joseph, right), to help him out.

This allows the show to travel to other countries and to the California desert and to seemingly every neighborhood of Los Angeles, without ever feeling like it’s spread too thin. And where Game of Thrones ties its episodes together via theme — in that it often suggests characters in wildly disparate locations are dealing with some of the same issues — Snowfall ties its episodes together via massive criminal enterprises. Its obsession with procedure turns each episode into a pipeline: What Teddy does here has an unexpected outcome with Franklin over there, and so on.

It’s not the most immediately engaging way to tell stories, and Snowfall is still very much a work in progress. The series is plagued with thin characters and narrative dead ends, and I was very much on the fence about it until the last few hours of the season. (This might evoke some of the problems Netflix has with its own first seasons, but where Netflix series are too focused on serialized sweep, Snowfall has almost exactly the opposite problem. The granularity of its episodes and their intense focus on process and procedure means the big picture gets a little lost until the very end.)

But it makes excellent use of a storytelling method that it clearly grows more comfortable with as the season progresses, as well as a host of Southern California locations. There’s something compulsively watchable about it, and I expect it to be a big hit, if only because it’s telling a story unlike any other on TV.

FX has become known for its prowess at making great television, but people rarely talk about how good the network is at course-correcting, at figuring out what works about a troubled show and zeroing in on that. Snowfall doesn’t get all the way there in season one, but it comes further than you’d expect. And inside its veins runs something vital and alive and different — at once indebted to its inspirations and ready to find a way to transcend them. I don’t love it yet, but I suspect that given enough time, I will.

Snowfall debuts Wednesday, July 5, at 10 pm Eastern on FX.

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