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FX's 'Snowfall,' Netflix's 'GLOW': TV still looking back to the '80s

Two new shows share a city, and an era television can't get enough of, but not much else.

British actor Damson Idris stars in FX’s “Snowfall,” premiering at 10 p.m. Wednesday
British actor Damson Idris stars in FX’s “Snowfall,” premiering at 10 p.m. WednesdayRead moreMATTHIAS CLAMER / FX

Those who remember the 1980s — we know who we are — don't all remember the decade the way, say, Jenkintown's Adam F. Goldberg does in ABC's The Goldbergs, or, I'm guessing, from the perspective of Russian spies Philip and Elizabeth Jennings in  FX's The Americans, or the ragtag group of women wrestlers in my favorite new Netflix series, GLOW.

I definitely don't remember anything quite like the 1982 bike race in HBO's Tour de Pharmacy, a sporadically funny mockumentary about doping in cycling that premieres Saturday and whose many stars include Andy Samberg, Orlando Bloom, Jeff Goldblum, Kevin Bacon, Daveed Diggs, Julia Ormond, and, bizarrely even for this, Lance Armstrong.

So when I'm watching a show set in a time I lived through but often don't recognize from TV shows, I tend to ignore the easy hooks — the music, the hair, the high-waisted jeans — and focus on the stories and the characters.

Because nostalgia's never enough.

Perspective, though, is always welcome, and that's what I hope to take away from FX's Snowfall, a slow burn of a new drama from John Singleton (Boyz n the Hood), Eric Amadio, and Dave Andron that premieres Wednesday.

Beginning in 1983 Los Angeles at the dawn of the crack-cocaine epidemic,  Snowfall shows us the before picture of a world that's about to change. It's a world worth considering: We open on a South Central street lined with palm trees and small, well-kept houses whose windows aren't yet barred. People are working in their yards, sitting on their porches. Kids are playing in the street. We know crack is coming, and we have an idea of what it's going to do to this neighborhood, but the characters don't. And for a significant chunk of the first season — I've seen seven of the 10 episodes — there's no crack in evidence.

There's plenty of drug-dealing, though.

Damson Idris plays Franklin Saint, a convenience-store employee whose ambition and strong work ethic leads him from selling a little weed to the high-risk, high-reward world of  trafficking in cocaine.

He's not alone. Sergio Peris-Mencheta plays soulful-looking professional wrestler Gustavo "El Oso" Zapata, who's moonlighting as an enforcer for a Mexican crime family, drawn deeper into the coke trade by Lucia Villanueva (Emily Rios), the crime lord's businesslike daughter.

And then there's the CIA. Carter Hudson plays agency operative Teddy McDonald, whose drive to find funding for the anti-communist contras in Nicaragua gets him embroiled with drug and arms smuggling.

This is tricky territory because the CIA's role remains in dispute. Andron told reporters in January that while Snowfall isn't "a documentary," the show was using the same CIA consultant as The Americans.

"I don't want to give too much away … but I think we are sensitive to the conspiracy theories that have, I think over time, been a little debunked," Andron said. "What interested me in this show and premise was that gray area. I think that what probably, frankly, happened was that people looked the other way. I don't think there was any conspiracy to bring crack to the inner city or destroy a people. … I think they looked the other way. And look, at the time, cocaine was a rich-white-man's drug. Nobody saw what crack would do."

Thanks to shows like The Wire and Breaking Bad, viewers do have some idea of what any kind of  illicit dealing does to otherwise sympathetic characters: how soon lines get crossed, how quickly the bodies pile up. The acting is good, and Snowfall does these transformations well, but it's not what supposedly sets it apart. If we're not going to see more of the before picture — and of the people, like Franklin's mother, Cissy (Michael Hyatt, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend), who are doing their best to keep things together — then what is Snowfall waiting for? Snow, already.

That ’80s ‘GLOW’

I often judge shows by how much they make me care about situations and people I'm not usually interested in, and Netflix's GLOW, whose 10-episode first season I finished bingeing last week, does just that.

Not that I didn't learn a lot about fake wrestling moves.

The title stands for Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, a short-lived 1980s TV show of which I have no memory whatsoever, and it stars Alison Brie (Community, Mad Men) and Betty Gilpin (Nurse Jackie) as L.A.-based actresses-turned-wrestlers whose major conflict is outside the ring, and comedian Marc Maron as the down-on-his-luck movie director who hires them to be part of an all-woman wrestling show that's as much soap opera as it is fighting.

Created by Liz Flahive (Homeland) and Carly Mensch (Orange Is the New Black), its executive producers include OITNB creator Jenji Kohan, and its approach to ensemble is similar to Orange's. The focus frequently shifts from Brie and Gilpin's characters to the rest of a diverse cast, with particularly strong performances from Sydelle Noel, Britney Young, Sunita Mani (Mr. Robot), and Gayle Rankin, whose character is known, in and out of the ring, as Sheila the She-Wolf.

GLOW is fast and funny, furious and absurd. And I couldn't stop watching.

Snowfall. 10 p.m. Wednesday, FX.
Tour de Pharmacy. 10 p.m. Saturday, HBO.
GLOW. Netflix.