The new FX series Snowfall is set in Los Angeles in the early 1980s, with promotional material that captures the bright sunshine and infectious music of both location and decade. But the show is telling a much more serious story than its commercials might indicate at first glance. It seeks to explore the early days of the crack cocaine epidemic. But is Snowfall based on a true story?
It absolutely is, though the characters that populate its world are fictional. It positions characters on different sides of the epidemic: there is a young dealer named Franklin Saint, the Villanueva crime family, CIA operative Teddy McDonald, and wrestler Gustavo "El Oso" Zapata. None of these characters were real people living in Los Angeles in the '80s, but Snowfall uses fictional proxies to explore something very real.
The creator of the series, John Singleton, spoke about his inspiration and goals for Snowfall in an interview with the LA Times. "It's an untold story," Singleton said. "It's the story about how cocaine changed Los Angeles. There's a whole kind of oral history, folk tale about this era. And no one has dramatized it. I wanted to do that. It's a nostalgic show. But very, very edgy."
The sudden rise of crack cocaine in the '80s decimated communities in a very short amount of time and left a lasting impact that is still felt today. Snowfall is set at the moment crack began to emerge and take over, documenting the moments (both major and minor) when everything changed. At the Television Critics Association, showrunner and executive producer Dave Andron said, "People described the period like a bomb being dropped."
Snowfall tackles the period from different perspectives. Franklin Saint allows the show to look at the epidemic from a personal point of view, but it also looks at how the CIA was involved. But most important is just how drastically neighborhoods were changed. "If you went to South Central [before the crack epidemic], there weren't any bars on windows; there were less fences," Singleton said at the TCA. "This happens and Snowfall prevails on neighborhoods, changing alliances and families."
But despite the real-life origins of the story, there is no singular inspiration for Snowfall. It's not based on any one person's life or a specific book. Instead a variety of sources (CIA advisors, Los Angeles Poet Laureate Luis J. Rodriguez, Singleton himself) provided the right information to make the series feel real.