Wednesday, July 5, 2017

REVIEW: 'Snowfall' - Franklin Proves Himself as a Businessman Who Can Handle Intense Pressure in 'Pilot'

FX's Snowfall - Episode 1.01 "Pilot"

South Central street entrepreneur Franklin Saint takes a leap into the cocaine game. Disgruntled CIA officer Teddy McDonald allies with a Contra soldier. Luchador wrestler Gustavo "El Oso" Zapata makes inroads with a Mexican cartel family.

The amount of quality shows and ideas in television have grown to extraordinary levels over the past decade or so. There are so many outlets providing content right now. They all need to find a fresh and distinct voice in order to stand out in this ever-changing and competitive medium. Even the networks who've been a part of the game for a long time have to find that new perspective in order to remain relevant. It would be so easy for any show to borrow the same conceits and cliches. The execution could make it an entertaining series. But in an era of 400+ scripted shows, a series like that would be hard to stand out. Snowfall comes from a very established network in FX that has such an incredible track record of being ahead of the trends and redefining the medium for a long time now. It's had hit after hit. It's one of the best networks out there. It's not without its failures either. Hopes are always high when this network launches a new show. The audience has come to expect something bold and original each time. Snowfall is more conventional than the average FX show. It's set in a world that has been explored in numerous different ways in the entertainment industry. And yet, the execution and performances hint that there could be some potential for more from this series as well.

"Pilot" largely succeeds because of how confident it is with establishing the show's atmosphere and mood. This hour is stunning to watch because directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah have a strong vision for the look and feel of this story. It paints an incredibly pointed but beautiful picture of life in the mid 1980s in Southern California. That's where this story primarily takes place. The narrative is split into three distinct storylines as well. One stands out as much more significant and important than the other two. That one follows Franklin Saint, a recent high school graduate who aims to climb the ladder from selling marijuana to cocaine in order to not be beaten down by the system for the color of his skin. Elsewhere, Mexican luchador Gustavo "El Oso" Zapata takes on a high-risk job robbing a house for two potential new colleagues. And finally, disgraced CIA officer Teddy potentially finds a way back into a serious assignment by trafficking cocaine in order to help fund the Contras. All of this does make the narrative seem scattered and unfocused. It also proves that there were so many different factors that ultimately led to the rise of crack in America. It's not just a simple white-or-black issue. It affects all of these characters in distinctly different ways. Their motivations are all different but equally valid in this main story.

Of course, things start in a somewhat silly place with Franklin catching two neighbor kids after they try robbing the ice cream truck. That's such a strange place to start this series. It reveals that Franklin does have rules that he tries to follow. When asked why he stopped them when the rest of the neighborhood was so disinterested, he says that the boys needed to learn that that wasn't right. Stealing was never going to create a meaningful life for them. He says this because he has a businessman quality to him. Franklin is smart enough to attend a predominantly white private school and even a college across town. He left because he felt like an outsider. He is a part of this community. This is his home. He's providing a service to his people with the distribution of drugs. He is more than comfortable selling his product to the white kids who go to his former high school. It's his way of being a part of the system while standing above it as well. It's his opportunity to create a name for himself in a system that is determined to keep people who look like him down.

Franklin just stumbles into the cocaine business as well. It's not something he is actively seeking out. His white friend asks him to meet with his supplier, Avi Drexler, becomes he's a crazed man. And yes, the show does present this drug kingpin as an over-the-top individual who is very eccentric. Again, it's not a new character type that is reinvented in a meaningful way here. Avi is just a man who takes pleasure out of shooting people wearing bullet proof vests. And yet, this sequence is important because it establishes just how committed Franklin is to improving his life. He is willing to risk everything now. It also shows how calm and collected he is while under an incredibly tense pressure. He is willing to put on the vest and get shot at in order to earn Avi's trust. That arrangement could go awry in any number of ways. Franklin is choosing to be an active participant in it through. He is willing to prove that there is an untapped market in his neighborhood for this product. Cocaine no longer has to be a drug for the rich white man. 

And yet, the pressure only continues to increase for Franklin as he has to sell his kilo of cocaine in just a day. There isn't enough money in the world for his uncle and partner, Jerome, to start selling this drug. That sets up the surprising reveal that his Aunt Louie actually has a contact who could buy the drugs that night. It's a fascinating backstory given to her. It shows that this family is largely all connected to this business. Franklin's mother doesn't seem to be a part of it but she may be too busy working her own job to be truly aware of what's going on in Franklin's life. He's out selling cocaine to Louie's contact who also has no reason to trust him. And once again, Franklin proves that he can handle himself under this kind of pressure. It's an admirable quality. One that is bound to get more complicated as the season continues. But this is the life Franklin has chosen. Aunt Louie wonders why he just doesn't introduce their contacts to each other so that they would be done with this altogether. Franklin wants to be the middleman in order to be a part of this business that will be affecting his community. It won't be some mysterious and powerful outsider corrupting this neighborhood. Instead, it will be because of someone who actually has roots in the place. That's a powerful story.

Things only become more emotionally resonant for Franklin with the final reveal of his father. It's important to note early in the episode that the action points out that Franklin isn't close with his father. By the end of the premiere, it's revealed that his dad is actually homeless. Franklin has the opportunity to speak to him again and chooses not to. That's a crucial decision for him to make. It makes it easy to become involved with his life and his story. All of this may just be in reaction to the decisions that his father has made. Franklin worked hard in school and is working hard now for a profitable business for himself because of the poor choices his father made. That could be a detail that the show could get really hung up on as the season develops. Franklin could be spending too much time in the past when he should be focusing on the future. But the trust has already been developed that the show has a clear story moving forward for Franklin. The performance from Damson Idris makes it easy to have that trust by the end of this premiere. With the other two stories, it's less certain. Time will tell if the show has the skill to make this overall narrative work in the end. It might or it could all come crumbling down.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Pilot" was written by Dave Andron, Eric Amadio & John Singleton and directed by Adil El Arbi & Bilall Fallah.
  • There is a minor bit of story crossover amongst the three main plots as well. Franklin is actually present at Gustavo's wrestling match and even approaches him afterwards to ask for an autograph. All of these characters are connected through cocaine. But this moment plays as the show making it clear that they are connected elsewhere as well.
  • Between this show and Netflix's GLOW, this has proven to be a pretty big month for 1980s wrestling. The way Snowfall filmed that big fight is pretty intense as well. It made it feel visceral and powerful even though it's also important that Gustavo loses.
  • So, Gustavo is willing to commit this crime because he's looking for a life after wrestling. And yet, things quickly go awry for him. He is robbing someone clearly of personal importance to his new employers. But he also kills that man because he happens to arrive home early. His wrestling background pays off. But this death should carry some severe consequences.
  • Emily Rios plays Lucia, one of Gustavo's new bosses, and Michael Hyatt plays Cissy, Franklin's mother. Both are actresses who've stood out on other acclaimed shows over the years. Their roles are minor in this premiere but should become more significant moving forward.
  • Teddy's story feels a bit more conventional. It's once again a story about a white man in anguish. He's frustrated with his life because he's not doing the work he wants to be doing and is distant with his wife. As such, his life is being uprooted because a now dead CIA agent trusts him to run this operation.
  • Teddy's relationship with his new drug friend, Alejandro, isn't off to a great start. Teddy wants to talk to everyone who is a part of this mission. Meanwhile, Alejandro is keeping a huge secret about the multiple women who were there when the CIA agent died while high on cocaine. That's a lie that is bound to come out eventually.