“Snowfall,” FX’s South Los Angeles cocaine saga, eased onto the television schedule in July 2017, and since then it’s gone about its business quietly. It doesn’t get talked about a lot, but its fifth season arrives with two episodes on Wednesday. That’s a good run for an astringent morality tale that doesn’t offer predictable thrills, excessive sentimentality or brand-name actors.
Which isn’t to say that “Snowfall” doesn’t do some discreet pandering to its audience. It is, in its vicious way, one of the most powerfully nostalgic shows on television — a “Wonder Years” for the drug trade. Its picture of Los Angeles in the mid-1980s may not be realistic in the strict sense, but it’s true to an idea of the city at that time as promulgated by John Singleton, one of the show’s creators, and the show allies itself with that mythos in clever ways. When the family at the story’s center goes ballistic in the new season after a neighborhood rapper rhymes about their business, a light goes on in the eyes of one of the crew: It’s 1986, and he sees gangsta rap coming.
Singleton, who died in 2019, was in Los Angeles developing the screenplay for his first and best-known film, “Boyz N The Hood,” at the time that the new season of “Snowfall” takes place. He was 24 years old when he was nominated to direct the film. This is the age that the show’s hero, Franklin Saint (DamsonIdris), reached in Season 5. “Snowfall” borrows some tragic-young-men archetypes from “Boyz,” and their melodramatic pull is another ingredient in the show’s appeal.
But “Snowfall” has taken a cooler and more understated approach — the romanticism and sensationalism are there, but they’re moderated by dry humor, on one hand, and an effective calibration of cold dread, on the other. (Dave Andron, another creator of the series, remains the showrunner and wrote the new season’s first two episodes with Leonard Chang; four of 10 episodes were available for review.) Rather than a rueful tragedy, it is — so far — a Horatio Alger tale of aspirational capitalism, one that adds systemic racism and automatic weapons to the barriers facing the hero.
And although it didn’t start out as a wry and moving family drama, it has evolved into one. The story focuses on the inner workings of a Mexican drug cartel as well as the Central American adventures and rogue C.I.A. agent Reed (Carter Hudson) have dropped away, and the focus is entirely on Franklin and his tight-knit crew: his uncle Jerome (Amin Joseph); Jerome’s girlfriend, Louie (Angela Lewis); his best friend and right-hand man, Leon (Isaiah John); and his mother, Cissy (Michael Hyatt).
And it’s those performers, finally, who are the show’s almost-secret weapon. Presumably directed over the seasons to underplay, they’ve consistently worked against any temptation to resort to clichéd gestures and emotions. The central cast, led by Idris as the dangerously conflicted, reluctantly menacing Franklin, has created a quirky and believable gallery of characters, and their emotional credibility keeps you invested through the story’s melodramatic twists and abrupt turns. (The portrayal of the actual drug business, and the fictionalized treatment of the C.I.A.’s involvement with it, is not, it’s safe to say, documentary in nature.)
Season 4 ended (spoilers ahead) in a welter of chaos and violence: Franklin and Reed’s partnership was nearly exposed by a reporter; Reed killed the reporter but was then partially outed anyway by Franklin’s father, who in turn was (perhaps) killed by Reed. Season 5 opens and Franklin seems to have put all that behind him. He’s on top of his game, piloting his own airplane and running his semi-legitimate real estate company with his new girlfriend, Veronique (Devyn A. Tyler of “Clarice”), who’s pregnant.
But success is the handmaiden of disaster on “Snowfall” — the perverse reality of Franklin’s American dream is that the wealthier and happier your family becomes, the more ruthless and paranoid you need to be to protect it. The sudden attention that the public and law enforcement are paying to cocaine has resulted in the death of Len Bias (real-life basketball star). Closer to home, life is complicated by the return of Reed (now going by his real name, Teddy), who’s quickly back in the C.I.A.’s good graces, and of Cissy, who wants to know why her son is back in business with his father’s killer.
None of this can end well, it would seem, but it’s a dark, enjoyable, sharply…