Billed as a story about the L.A. origins of crack cocaine, FX’s engaging yet depressing 10-episode drama “Snowfall” (premiering Wednesday) is really about the many ways in which the drug trade recalibrates and eventually rots the morals of the people who engage in it. This is a theme that “Snowfall” and nearly all such drug-supply sagas in film and television have in common, asking a viewer to relate to the conflicted, all-too-human and ultimately murderous choices that get easier and easier to make when the deals go down, the money flows and the triggers are pulled.
John Singleton, the “Boyz N the Hood” director who is “Snowfall’s ” co-creator (with Dave Andron and Eric Amadio), opens the series with a Technicolor paean to his South Central neighborhood as he remembers (or imagines) it to be in the summer of 1983, before the rise of crack: a tranquil setting serenaded by R&B and early rap songs that pulse from boomboxes, a world filled with boundless sunshine, good neighbors and ice-cream trucks.
It’s here, with this blissful “before” shot, that “Snowfall” — which I’ve already given strong praise in my summer TV preview based on its lean and well-paced storytelling — could most use a disclaimer or some sort of helpful caution that you should view the series entirely as a work of fiction.
Not “based on.” Not “almost true” and often not anywhere near truth, except in the way that make-believe can achieve a convincing verisimilitude. “Snowfall” needs to come clean as a story, and not because it treats South Central as a paradise on the precipice of being lost (because surely, to some, it was). Of “Snowfall’s” three parallel story lines, the one most in need of a disclaimer, I think, is a plot that all but connects the emergence of crack to a supposed CIA effort to sell drugs to raise money to buy arms for Central American rebels trying to overthrow communist regimes.
That’s an old — and largely debunked — claim, which “Snowfall” presents in great detail as an open-ended matter of controversy. In addition to introducing viewers to an entrepreneurial young man in South Central named Franklin Saint (Damson Idris) who will go from small-time marijuana dealer to becoming the neighborhood’s first crack kingpin, “Snowfall” zeros in on a semi-rogue CIA agent, Teddy McDonald (Carter Hudson), who is still stinging from an earlier mission failure and now acts on indirect orders to deliver arms to Nicaraguans, using a cocaine surplus to raise cash. (Or something like that. “Snowfall,” like the milieu it depicts, is deliberately evasive on its deeper secrets, divulging them to viewers on a need-to-know basis.)
Perhaps only seasoned media critics can still recall the 1996 investigative series in the San Jose Mercury News that first reported such claims, or how The Washington Post, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times poked so many holes in the Mercury News’s findings that the paper had to go back and re-report its facts, a great number of which didn’t hold up.
On the U.S. government’s end, congressional and internal CIA investigations also failed to find evidence of connections between the agency and the crack epidemic as galling or direct as the story presented in “Snowfall.” Nevertheless, it remains a powerful conspiracy theory and persistent urban legend. And now here it is, told quite grippingly on TV, involving coverup murders and a sequence in which McDonald makes a trip to a Nicaraguan rebel camp to remove evidence that would link stolen arms to U.S. sources.
In writing “Snowfall,” Singleton and his colleagues sought out expert advice from CIA sources, and Singleton has said in interviews that he knows there’s not enough evidence to support “Snowfall’s” version. But to him, it feels true (the CIA, he told USA Today, “knew [cocaine] was being brought over, and looked the other way”) and, in the TV business, feeling true usually matters more than being true.
No one, after all, has advertised “Snowfall” as a documentary. Same goes for “The Americans,” another FX drama set in the 1980s that spins great and sometimes barely plausible thrills out of Cold War plotlines that use historical fact merely as a suggestion and nothing more.
Why does “Snowfall” need any kind of disclaimer if “The Americans” doesn’t? Well, perhaps “The Americans” does. Even the most ludicrous novels include a reminder, usually upfront, in fine but noticeable print near the copyright, that the fiction between these covers is not meant to portray real people and real events — even if it seems inspired by a true story or unintentionally mirrors reality.
In the past two decades, as television rose to prominence on a wave of high-quality storytelling and acting, the shows began to take on subject matters that were closer to truth than wild fiction. It’s sometimes too easy for the TV version to supersede the facts.
But don’t ask me — ask Olivia de Havilland. In a lawsuit filed in Los Angeles last week against FX and the producers of the network’s excellent miniseries “Feud: Bette and Joan,” the 101-year-old actress claims that the series misrepresented her character by showing de Havilland (played by Catherine Zeta-Jones) participating in an on-camera interview that never occurred, expressing opinions and sharing gossip in a way de Havilland says she would never do. Even though de Havilland is famous enough to be thought of as a public figure, her attorney says “Feud” crosses the line of protected free speech.
No one who watched “Feud” should come away thinking of it as a direct representation of the facts — but there was nothing stopping viewers from assuming that it was. It was a heightened, exaggerated take on a possibly true story, played for maximum effect and occasionally thrilling doses of camp. It’s de Havilland’s good luck and slight misfortune to be the only person portrayed in “Feud” who happens to still be alive and therefore able to take offense.
But she is alive and while she may not have the strongest case, she has a very good point. The lines between fact and fiction in 2017 are blurry enough, are they not? If you’re going to revisit and fictionalize some juicy story out of the past, it wouldn’t hurt to remind people that it’s all a big, beautiful lie.
Snowfall (90 minutes) premieres Wednesday at 10 p.m. on FX.