Following several characters whose lives will intersect in the violent world of the drug trade, “Snowfall” traces the beginnings of the crack cocaine epidemic in 1983 Los Angeles. It’s a convincing representation of the 1980s with careful attention paid to the soundtrack and the style of the decade. With minimal reference to the politics of the era, the series instead focuses on the characters’ motivations. Making the story of crack’s development a character driven one personalizes what could otherwise be a been there done that drug tale. “Snowfall” strives for more and mostly succeeds.

The pilot introduces the story’s main players: Franklin Saint (Damson Idris), fresh out of high school with a drive for money and power; Gustavo Zapata (Sergio Peris-Mencheta), a Mexican wrestler caught in the middle of drug cartel feud; Teddy McDonald (Carter Hudson), a CIA agent running a clandestine operation to fund Nicaraguan Contras and Lucia Villanueva (Emily Rios), the daughter of a Mexican drug lord.

Establishing multiple characters without overusing exposition or rushing through the emotional beats of the script takes skill and the first episode mostly achieves this. Gustavo is a down on his luck wrestler whose career is going nowhere. Teddy is a depressed CIA agent separated from his family. Lucia’s calm confidence suggests a future powerplay. As the story develops, each has discernible motivations with hints of a darker history. It makes them both recognizable and mysterious, an intriguing combination in dramatic characters.

Less successful is the character of Franklin. Played with a likable energy by Idris, Franklin is introduced on the street of his South Central Los Angeles neighborhood, a block filled with the activity of a close-knit community. When a few of the neighborhood kids steal candy from a street vendor, Franklin grabs them and returns the candy. His friends tease him and wonder why he cares. He says, “They gotta learn. That ain’t how America work.” In a later scene at his job at a convenience store, he says he wants to work and make money. His journey begins when that desire to earn finds its way to the drug trade.

Selling dope for his aunt and uncle, he seizes a dangerous opportunity that his uncle warns him against. He responds, “I tried to do s--t the right way … You know what I learned? The game’s rigged. It ain’t made for people like us … I’m rewriting the rules.” The monologue is meant to establish Franklin’s motivation for what’s to come yet it feels forced and unsupported. This may change as the series progresses but is a weakness of the pilot episode.

What feels more authentic is Franklin’s ill thought out plan to launch himself into bigger and better things. It suggests that he has a long way to go before he truly understands the impact of his choice and is one of the more interesting possibilities that “Snowfall” has the potential to explore.

“Snowfall” premieres on Wednesday, July 5 at 10 p.m. EDT on FX.

— Melissa Crawley is the author of “Mr. Sorkin Goes to Washington: Shaping the President on Television’s ‘The West Wing’” and the recently released “The American Television Critic.” She has a Ph.D. in media studies and is a member of the Television Critics Association. To comment on Stay Tuned, email her at staytuned@outlook.com or follow her on Twitter at @MelissaCrawley.