From left, Malcolm Mays, Damson Idris and Isaiah John in...

From left, Malcolm Mays, Damson Idris and Isaiah John in "Snowfall." Credit: FX / Mark Davis

THE SERIES “Snowfall”

WHEN | WHERE Premieres Wednesday at 10 p.m. on FX


WHAT IT’S ABOUT In 1983 Los Angeles, the crack epidemic is about to begin. Franklin Saint (Damson Idris) is a nice kid who has a hardworking mother, but he wants the “freedom” she never got. The drug trade beckons. Lucia Villanueva (Emily Rios) is the shrewd, ambitious daughter of a Mexican drug lord. She wants in on the cocaine street action, too, and enlists the help of Mexican wrestler Gustavo “El Oso” Zapata (Sergio Peris-Mencheta). Teddy McDonald (Carter Hudson) is a CIA operative with a troubled past and plans to fund the Contras. They don’t know one another, but they will. This show was created by John Singleton (“Boyz N The Hood”), Eric Amadio and Dave Andron, while Thomas Schlamme (“The West Wing”) is an executive producer.

MY SAY By now, you’ve figured out that “Snowfall” has nothing to do with snow. “Snow” is ’80s slanguage for coke, but as a metaphor for the early cocaine epidemic, and later the crack one, “snowfall” suffices nicely: Falling, falling falling, snow covers everything, or everyone, then ultimately buries them. From this alone we can infer that the fates have been sealed, the ending already written. It’s not a happy one.

As such, “Snowfall” has a particularly tough balancing act. It can’t glamorize the early-’80s coke trade but can’t entirely deglamorize it, either. There’s a 10-episode series to get through, almost certainly a second season as well (the first ends just as crack is taking off). The allure of both drug trade and drug have to be explored, character motive, too. Singleton, Amadio and Andron (“Justified”) have the advantage of hindsight, which their characters obviously do not. Saint is clueless about what he’s getting into. McDonald, meanwhile, has wandered far off-task and off-reservation. One is pursuing a dream, the other running from a nightmare — or himself. Of the three key protagonists, only Villanueva has the vaguest idea of how to reap this particular whirlwind. With a heart of pure granite, and a gift for improvisation, she gropes toward a big killing and (naturally) there will be some killing along the way. Scarface and Michael Corleone would admire her style and especially her sang-froid.

“Snowfall” has to make another particularly tricky maneuver. It broadly parallels a murky and long-debated story about CIA involvement in the L.A. crack trade as a way to fund the anti-communist Nicaraguan Contras. In 1996, the San Jose Mercury News published a sensational account that appeared to establish the link between the CIA and just one major L.A. drug dealer, leading to various Congressional investigations. Under intense criticism — mostly from other newspapers — the Mercury News backed off from some of the key claims. Nevertheless, some still believe the U.S. government was involved in poisoning the black community by flooding it with crack.

Neither “Snowfall” nor FX has much to gain from taking sides here, so they deploy a “Traffic”-like trick to avoid entanglement. Saint, Villanueva and McDonald have no ties, per se, but are drifting toward the same goal at the same time. This creates the impression that the crack epidemic had many authors. Even McDonald turns into a lone wolf who’s driven by his own pathologies, not necessarily those of a spy agency.

Watchable? With all this going on, the answer is yes. Compelling, potentially important TV? With all this going on, the answer: TBD.

BOTTOM LINE Well-produced and particularly well-acted newcomer with a lot of moving parts, potentially too many.

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