Now that we’re fully entrenched in the 2010s, it’s time (apparently) for us to look back to the 90s. In the past two years, we’ve seen TV series looking back at the O.J. Simpson trial, the mistakes of Waco, the murder of Jon Benet Ramsey, the hunt for Ted Kaczynski, and other 90s crimes, sometimes presented in interesting and stylistically significant ways, and sometimes not. The latest is USA’s Unsolved, a new scripted anthology series whose first season is focused on the murders of Tupac Shakur and Christopher Wallace, a.k.a. The Notorious B.I.G. No one has ever been charged with committing the crimes, but theories about the perpetrators have abounded ever since they occurred.
Unsolved takes a three-layer approach to its investigation of the murders and their aftermath in its 10-episode run, and is based largely on the work of former LAPD detective and task force leader Greg Kading’s book Murder Rap: The Untold Story of Biggie Smalls & Tupac Shakur Murder Investigations. In 1993 we meet Shakur (Marcc Rose, who bears an uncanny resemblance and also played the artist in Straight Outta Compton) and Biggie (newcomer Wavyy Jonez, also an uncanny lookalike), as the two young men try to navigate their way through fame. Shakur was already a big name, and he takes Biggie under his wing to show him the West Coast way of things. But behind each of these young talents was a mogul figure who would become a major figure in the East Coast—West Coast hip hop rivalry: Suge Knight (Dominic L. Santana, reprising the character from All Eyez on Me) of Death Row Records, and Sean “Puffy” Combs (Luke James) of Bad Boy Records.
These influences and alliances are often thought to be at the core of both Tupac’s death in Vegas by drive-by shooting, and Biggie’s death in LA by the same manner 6 months later. At least, that’s a prevailing theory by LAPD detective Russell Poole (Jimmi Simpson) whom we meet in 1997. Poole’s obsessive approach to this case and several that ran alongside it uncovered systemic corruption within the LAPD, later known as a the Rampart scandal, and Poole believed that the connections between officers and their off-duty employment at Death Row Records was an important key in unlocking the Biggie and Tupac slayings. But, stymied by the corrupt department, Poole was never able to prove it.
Kading arrives in 2006 in the form of Josh Duhamel, who assembles a joint law enforcement task force that takes a fresh look at the case ten years later (like Poole, Kading is only tasked with focusing on Biggie’s murder since it happened in LA, though the two seem obviously connected). As of the first handful of episodes, we mostly see Kading’s group reworking leads that were established in the 1993 timeline and initially investigated in 1997.
I’ve spent half of this review just explaining the focus of each timeline, which speaks to one of my key issues with the series: it’s three series in one. Or possibly a movie, a series, and an actual anthology. The three distinct timelines are told in three distinct ways, with a sepia filter thrown over 1997 and a blue tone to 2006 to keep all of the cop stories clearly delineated. But the timelines are not all equal. Like True Detective’s first season, which also told its story in three eras, the most compelling is its middle story, in 1997, as Poole tries to unravel the circumstances that lead to these deaths, and ends up uncovering the misdeeds of his own department. As Unsolved shifts to Biggie and Tupac, the tone is so jarringly different that it completely stalls the momentum of the 1997 story, and vice versa when we leave them and return to fluorescent office lights and late-night reports being pounded out on typewriters. 2006 mostly gets lost in the jumble, and since we know the murders are never solved, there’s no urgency to scenes of the task force reopening the case.
In addition to EP Mark Taylor and Kading, who serves as a consultant, Unsolved comes from executive producers Anthony Hemingway (The People v. O.J. Simpson) and Kyle Long (Suits). The two directed and wrote the pilot, respectively, and they’ve assembled an incredible cast that also includes Bokeem Woodbine, Jamie McShane, Aisha Hinds, Wendell Pierce, Rhys Coiro, and Michael Harney. Yet among all of these great actors (including Rose’s incredibly charismatic Tupac, who overshadows Jonez), the one who stands out the most is Jimmi Simpson. He gives an incredibly passionate, frustrated, nuanced, and heartbreaking performance as Poole, who died in 2015 while giving an interview about his theories on the case — a case he never let go of.
There’s a lot to admire about the series, including the way it makes even the doldrums of regular police work look exciting thanks to quick editing and a single-camera approach that provides some dynamism. And though the stories and people are real, the adaptation never feels too reverential in any timeline, nor does the 90s setting ever feel like it’s being seen through all-knowing hindsight. It’s fresh and very grounded, and there is a clear desire by its creators to deliver as complete a picture as possible of the lead-up to the crimes and the mismanagement of the investigation. But there are too many creative visions here, and too many different stories to tell, and every time we leave a timeline behind — particularly if Poole or Tupac are involved — it’s frustrating.
At the conclusion of the first episode, there’s a telling scene that could feel too heavy-handed if mishandled, but it works. Tupac invites Biggie over to his house for a party, and excitedly shows him a bag full of unloaded guns. The two go out into the yard with other friends and pretend to shoot each other up. It takes place years before either would be gunned down for real at the ages of 25 and 24. The sprinkler system kicks in, and the boys run around in the water under the Southern California sun, laughing as they wield these empty firearms with abandon. They were just kids.
Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and The Notorious B.I.G. premieres February 27th on USA.