'Snowfall' wades into early days of crack cocaine

Malcolm Mays, Damson Idris and Isaiah John in 'Snowfall'

(CNN)The dirty business of drugs is a crowded neighborhood on television these days. Yet "Snowfall" carves out its own turf, delivering a potent cocktail garnished with elements of "The Wire," "Traffic" and "Narcos," as the early days of crack cocaine unfold from multiple perspectives.

It's 1983 in Los Angeles, where the abundant palm trees serve notice all that white powder isn't snow; rather, it's the riches associated with dealing coke, a high-risk exercise to say the least.
Co-created by director John Singleton ("Boyz N the Hood") with Eric Amadio and Dave Andron, the drama actually benefits from a relatively unknown cast, adding to the sense of verisimilitude around this spare, bleak drama.
The main threads feature Teddy (Carter Hudson), a CIA agent who teams up with a Contra soldier (Juan Javier Cardenas) as part of an operation to fund the Nicaraguan forces; Franklin (Damson Idris), whose boyish looks belie steely nerves, despite a mom (Michael Hyatt) who'd brain him if she knew what he was doing; and Gustavo (Sergio Peris-Mancheta), a Hispanic wrestler drawn into a dangerous scheme by the daughter (Emily Rios) of a menacing Mexican drug lord.
    Like most FX fare (including "The Americans," which occupies the same time period), "Snowfall" pushes to the edge of premium cable boundaries -- introducing creative ways to ingest coke, or taking detours to a porn shoot or the gilded home of a ruthless Israeli dealer (Alon Moni Aboutboul).
    There is not, admittedly, a lot of sunshine here, or characters to "root for" in the conventional sense. Practically everyone in the diverse cast is engaged in some form of criminal endeavors, reflecting communities that were ravaged by the drug's spread and the government's complicity.
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    The primary players, however, are believable and vulnerable, and the situations over the half-dozen previewed episodes become increasingly compelling. That's important, because the plots operate on parallel tracks, with only the occasional intersection that hints at larger possibilities.
    At its best, "Snowfall" illustrates the unintended consequences and collateral damage associated with drugs -- characters enter into new alliances at their peril -- while revisiting the CIA's role and shady dealings to advance its foreign-policy objectives.
    Frankly, the series might seem a little superfluous, given the aforementioned titles in its genre. Yet sharp execution makes this a credible companion to those productions -- cracking open another window into the complications surrounding a seemingly endless "drug war," still being fought decades after everyone supposedly learned to "Just Say No."
    "Snowfall" premieres July 5 at 10 p.m. on FX.