'Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and The Notorious B.I.G.': TV Review

An ambitious mess.
2/27/2018

Clunky dialogue and a lack of music from its titular hip-hop legends keep USA's look at the investigation into the murders of Tupac and Biggie Smalls from reaching its full potential.

USA's Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and The Notorious B.I.G. may give away its ending in the title, but the 10-episode limited series doesn't lack for twists and turns on the road to uncertainty.

Sprawling and messy, Unsolved is ambitious and boasts a deep ensemble featuring a wide assortment of TV's finest character actors. It's also full of lead-eared dialogue and repetitive plotting and, for a series with music at its center, has a near-crippling lack of music from its two title figures. So as often as Unsolved is compelling and entertaining, it's also infuriating.

Creator Kyle Long builds the narrative over three time periods.

In 2006, Detective Greg Kading (Josh Duhamel) is invited in by Brian Tyndall (Brent Sexton) for a meeting that begins with, "What do you know about the Christopher Wallace murder?"

A fun drinking game associated with Unsolved is to do a shot every time somebody mentions "Christopher Wallace" in conversation and they immediately follow it with, "You know, The Notorious B.I.G.," or the person they're talking to replies, "Biggie Smalls?"

Anyway, Biggie's mother Violetta (the wonderful and woefully underused Aisha Hinds) has filed a lawsuit that could cost the city of Los Angeles hundreds of millions and Kading has been given a long leash to set up a task force to finally get the answer to who killed Christopher Wallace. ["The Notorious B.I.G.?" "Yes."] He starts his team with Officer Daryn Dupree (Bokeem Woodbine), a street-savvy cop whose upward mobility has been stalled by some minor misdeed from his past. Over time, the squad expands to include various law enforcement types played by Wendell Pierce, Rhys Coiro, Amirah Vann and more. They're looking into the original investigation, which takes us to...

It's 1997 and, nine days after Christopher Wallace's — "Biggie Smalls?" "Yes" — murder, a seemingly routine road rage shooting takes Detective Russell Poole (Jimmi Simpson) down a rabbit hole that has him looking into not only Biggie's murder in Los Angeles, but the murder of Tupac Shakur in Las Vegas, crimes that he soon comes to believe are related and that have him investigating ties between local gangs, the LAPD and rap impresario Suge Knight. [Oddly, nobody ever says "Marlon Knight" followed in conversation by, "You mean Suge?"] Poole's case leads him to believe that a conspiracy is afoot, that the Tupac/Biggie murders were connected and more. It also leads to him running afoul of the LAPD establishment and putting his career in jeopardy.

Finally, starting in the early '90s, we trace the relationship between Biggie (Wavyy Jones) and Tupac (Marcc Rose), their early bonding and the role Suge (Dominic L. Santana) and Sean "Puffy" Combs (Luke James) played in what would become a tragic shift to acrimony.

A common mistake that critics, myself included, make is to treat "writing" as just another word for "dialogue." To avoid that error here, it's important to fully credit Long and subsequent writers with the structure and scope of Unsolved. The shifting back and forth through time is usually done fluidly and smartly in a way that lets one investigation, its successes or its failures, inform what's happening in the other, and lets the escalation of obsession with the different cops run parallel as well. Because certain figures pass between each of the stories, some measure of repetitiveness is unavoidable, but I feel like fleshing out several supporting characters could have prevented "Previously on…" introductions that are both necessary and endless — as well as constant refreshers on key figures like Keffe D, who is integral to the story and yet never memorable enough that he can just be mentioned without a full background refresher. Some effort, perhaps not quite enough, is made to show how race, class and jurisdiction impacted which people, neighborhoods and crimes were important to the LAPD, suggesting how all of those elements, plus general bureaucratic head-butting led to this high-profile crime remaining unsolved after two decades.

The great achievement of the show's directors, led by executive producer Anthony Hemingway, is one of rhythm and pacing, keeping a show moving on three rails simultaneously and maintaining momentum on each. Hemingway directed half of the episodes, including the first two, and he makes especially good use of Los Angeles locations, keeping things snappy even in otherwise lugubrious scenes of precinct exposition or at-home character development with characters and their absurdly negligible wives or girlfriends.

With those compliments in mind — man, there's some awful dialogue in Unsolved and the performances that stand out positively come from the actors capable of making it sound vaguely normal. I will accept that middle-aged white cops investigating the murder of a rapper in the mid-'90s would uncork some clunky exposition like, "Maybe it's the whole East Coast/West Coast music war with the New York rap artists hating the Los Angeles artists." Maybe. That does not excuse the number of times poor Detective Poole has to tell people that he thinks the Tupac and Biggie murders are connected followed by people having to tell him things like, "Remember, we are working the Biggie murder. We are not working the Tupac murder." It doesn't excuse the scene where two rival rap factions — don't make me explain "the whole East Coast/West Coast music war" to you — stand nose to nose and for a full 20 seconds nobody says anything other than "Wassup!" Or the scene in which Suge, backstage at the Soul Train Awards tells an underling, "We need to take this hip-hop thing to the next level. And then we focus on the movie game," and the underling replies, "Yeah. Don't forget about merchandising." That's before you get to unimproved genre-standard dialogue like the potential informant yelling, "I ain't no snitch!" or a somewhat rebellious cop saying, "You may not like the way I do things, but I get the job done."

The Tupac/Biggie scenes are disproportionately glutted with the rough dialogue because they don't have what ought to be the entire show's spine. There's basically no Tupac or Biggie music to be heard in the whole series, and so you're left with other characters referring to these rappers' brilliance or fame or importance and no way to illustrate it. I defy anybody coming into Unsolved without a full hip-hop jacket to come away from it telling me a single thing about what made either artist significant. Although Suge and Puffy come out of the series looking pretty bad, Unsolved is about as gentle and generous a treatment as one could imagine for Biggie and especially Tupac, whose sexual abuse conviction is whitewashed. That kindness wasn't enough to win clearances. It isn't that the soundtrack needs to be wall-to-wall All Eyez on Me and Ready to Die, but if a potentially deadly war is building out of the ambiguous meaning of "Who Shot Ya," darnit, you have to be able to have somebody listening to "Who Shot Ya." If scenes are being built around both the recording and video production on "Juicy," it's the wrong kind of distracting if you can only play the sampled hook from Mtume's "Juicy Fruit."

Even with this handcuffing, Rose and Jonez are both good, with the latter acquitting himself decently in the one scene he has to freestyle as Biggie. On the police side, Simpson is the easy standout, convincingly arcing out Poole's journey from curiosity to consumption with this crime. Woodbine, Pierce and Vann make the most of whatever limited character beats they have. Duhamel's actually hampered by having to play nonsensical scenes out of Kading's personal life — hero beats that have to be there when you're playing a guy who is a co-executive producer on the series.

The writers aren't in this to play detective themselves. They're following Kading's lead on investigative hunches, and they're pretty much sticking to the recent conventional wisdom on the Tupac/Biggie relationship and how it fell apart. It's interesting to see how they unfold the story, and to lament the sonic tapestry that's missing.

Cast: Josh Duhamel, Jimmi Simpson, Bokeem Woodbine, Wavyy Jonez, Marcc Rose
Creator: Kyle Long
Premieres: Tuesday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (USA)

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