Angela Lewis, Amin Joseph, and Damson Idris in Snowfall.
Angela Lewis, Amin Joseph, and Damson Idris in Snowfall. Ray Mickshaw/FX
This week marks the return of Snowfall, FX’s epic drama about the rise of crack cocaine in the 1980s, as it launches its third season in the wake of co-creator John Singleton’s untimely death in April. Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood is among the definitive cinematic documents of South Central LA during the early ’90s, and Snowfall—a period piece, unlike Boyz—revisits that milieu a few years prior, as crack evolved from a new street drug into an epidemic, and the turf wars between LA gangs heated up.

Snowfall has generally been left out of the prestige TV conversation, which I think is a shame, as it’s a consistently thrilling show, one of the most rewarding of the past few years. Following the trajectory of a classic tragedy through interlocking storylines, Snowfall boasts a thick roster of excellently drawn characters inhabited by dynamite performances—particularly from Damson Idris as Franklin Saint, a young man barely out of his teens when he becomes an unlikely drug kingpin; from Amin Joseph as Jerome, Franklin’s uncle and right-hand man; and from Sergio Peris-Mencheta as Gustavo, an enforcer for a rival Mexican cartel.

If you haven’t seen any of Snowfall, it probably won’t work to pick up the trail cold with season three, I'm afraid. Not because the three central plotlines (which are starting to satisfyingly converge in the new season) are especially tricky to navigate, or because the show veers wildly from the familiar drugs-’n’-crimes template you’ve already seen in everything from Scarface to The Wire to Breaking Bad. But the pleasures of Snowfall come from the depth and shading of its characters across extended periods of time; while little more than a year has passed since episode one—season three takes place as LA is ramping up for the 1984 Olympic Games—the primary characters of Snowfall have achieved a novelistic richness that the best serialized television shows can pull off.

For those who have kept up with Snowfall—and don’t worry, no spoilers here—season three marks a period of a refinement and maturity in the show, which has only gotten crisper and better with time. As mentioned, the primary plot threads are becoming more interbraided, and we’ve lost a few crucial characters along the way (something to be expected with a story this violent). Appropriately, some background characters—specifically Melody (Reign Edwards), Franklin’s love interest, and her father, police officer Andre (Marcus Henderson)—have been expanded significantly in season three. And the show’s most awkwardly written role, CIA agent Teddy McDonald (played by Carter Hudson), has now found the correct tenor after some bumpy development in the show’s early stages.

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Like the best of David Simon’s television work, Snowfall maintains a sociological overview of its themes by taking a wide-scope approach to the story. Franklin’s crew remains the focal point, but we also see—through the Teddy/CIA plotline—how cocaine enters the States from Central and South America, often with the aid of the US government, which used drug money to finance and arm rebel uprisings against communist dictatorships. We also see how a luxury narcotic like cocaine became a cheap street drug through a cooking process that maximized product and profit, and how its accessibility targeted the most vulnerable communities. And, lurking at the corners through the first two seasons but stepping into the limelight with these new episodes, we see the devastation caused by crack, on personal and sociological levels.

I have not seen all of John Singleton’s films, nor have I seen the other TV show he helped create, Rebel. And of course Snowfall is not his work alone; he was part of a team of many that brought the show to fruition. But along with Boyz n the Hood, Snowfall may best emblemize Singleton’s storytelling craft and his groundbreaking perspective on American social history. Without Singleton-directed movies like Boyz and Higher Learning, these stories likely would have taken even longer to be filtered through Hollywood to mainstream audiences. Most importantly, Snowfall’s just a ripping good show—it’s a fittingly excellent legacy for Singleton’s pioneering career.

Season 3 of Snowfall starts tonight on FX; seasons 1 & 2 are streaming on FX+ and are available for purchase through iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, and others.