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"Snowfall" is an extremely complicated show with a very simple premise — that the crack epidemic turned South Central Los Angeles into a war zone almost overnight. And that it was fostered by the CIA.

When the narrative begins in 1983, South Central is very different from what it would become.

"There were no bars on the windows. Less fences," said creator/executive producer John Singleton, who grew up in South Central and whose early films — including "Boyz n the Hood" — focused on inner-city violence. "That happens once this whole snowfall, as we call it, pervades the neighborhood. People change, families change, alliance changes, becomes more dangerous."

Executive producer/showrunner Dave Andron said he was surprised how quickly the area changed. In 1983, it was "a working-class neighborhood" that was "more dangerous than some" but not the "war zone" it would become.

"People describe it like a bomb being dropped on that area," Andron said. "Within six months, it had completely flipped."

"Snowfall" focuses on three main storylines. In one, 19-year-old Franklin Saint (Damson Idris) — a nice young man — sees a chance to make some quick money when he runs into an Israeli gangster who controls a big chunk of L.A.'s cocaine trade.

Then there's Lucia Villanueva (Emily Rios), the daughter of a Mexican gangster who controls a big chunk of L.A.'s marijuana trade. She sees the potential to make big bucks dealing cocaine.

Not exactly groundbreaking. We've seen plotlines like this before. Multiple times.

The twist here is in the third main storyline. CIA operative Teddy McDonald (Carter Hudson) — who's gotten himself in some sort of unspecified trouble — has just been transferred to Los Angeles. His big plan to redeem himself: He'll run an operation in which the CIA will deal cocaine in Southern California and use the profits to buy guns for (and otherwise support) the Nicaraguan Contras in their battle against the Sandinistas.

Singleton said the producers "took pains" to avoid mimicking other movies and TV shows about the cocaine trade.

"Most of them have the same kind of narrative. There's the rise and the fall, and the guy dies in a hail of bullets," he said. "We're making a new paradigm here. We're showing something that hasn't been done before."

The CIA plotline in "Snowfall" is based on "Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion," the book by journalist Gary Webb, which expanded on Webb's 1996 investigative series in the San Jose Mercury News. His reporting remains controversial, but Andron said the writers "absolutely" worked from the premise that it was factual.

At the same time, he acknowledged, "We're not doing a documentary." (Although "Snowfall" is using the same CIA technical adviser employed by "The Americans.")

"We are sensitive to the conspiracy theories that have, over time, been a little debunked," said Andron, who staked out a middle ground of sorts.

"I think that what probably happened was that people looked the other way," he said. "I don't think there was any conspiracy to bring crack to the inner city or destroy a people.

"At the time, cocaine was a rich, white man's drug. Nobody saw what crack would do to these people. … They thought they were doing something where the ends justified the means. And, of course, in hindsight, they were so wrong."

"Snowfall" is clearly going to be a slow build. After screening the first five episodes, it feels like the storylines are being set up — because there are so many of them, and because they're largely separate.

Those three main storylines each have subplots. Those subplots are each built on supporting characters. It isn't easy to keep up with it all.

Clearly, all this is going to come together at some point. Eventually. Assuming "Snowfall" gets enough time. Andron said the plan — the hope — is to produce "a number of seasons."

"We do want to start from a bit of a place of innocence. And I do think it would take us four or five seasons to get far enough down the line so we can really feel the impact of that. … We really do hope and pray for a decent-sized run so we can get into all that."

Assuming there are enough patient viewers out there who will stick with the show.

Twitter: @ScottDPierce —


"Snowfall" premieres Wednesday, July 5, on FX — at 8, 9:20 and 10:40 p.m. on DirecTV and Dish; at 11 p.m., 12:20 and 1:40 a.m. (early Thursday) on Comcast.