It’s hard to think about Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and The Notorious B.I.G. without thinking of another large-scale reassessment of ‘90s crime—not American Crime Story’s The People v. O.J. Simpson, but director Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America. In that nearly eight-hour documentary, the crime and its reception are fastidiously examined and contextualized; in Unsolved, this focus becomes impossible. An excruciatingly simple treatment of a subject that the series’ very structure acknowledges as complex, Unsolved is most unsatisfying because of its easy answers.
Biggie Smalls (Wavyy Jonez) and Tupac Shakur (Marcc Rose, who also played the role in Straight Outta Compton) are depicted as friends who respect each other’s art, even if the actors are only given the chance to perform relatively surface-level (though not inaccurate) imitations. Their murders were tragic, complex, and, as USA’s semi-fictionalized drama wants you to take away, undoubtedly corrupt.
Two detectives—Russel Poole (Jimmi Simpson), who’s initially assigned the Biggie murder, and Greg Kading (Josh Duhamel), who’s assigned the Biggie and Tupac killings a decade later in response to a lawsuit against the police department—investigate two of America’s highest-profile unsolved murders, in the midst of one of America’s largest police scandals, in the style of the best TV series of all time.
It’s a sprawling case with multiple career verticals built into it (the gang life, the rap industry, the police department) like each season of The Wire—on which Unsolved showrunner Anthony Hemingway cut his teeth—to somehow manage the massive interconnectivity. Unsolved takes on the additional hardship of time-hopping between two investigations of the same deaths (and hopping even further back to flesh out the relationship between the rappers). It doesn’t work.
There are drinking problems, broken marriages, cops that love the job more than themselves, and Wendell Pierce. There’s everything necessary to implement the lessons of The Wire in the larger cities of Los Angeles and New York, and to apply its ideas to American ambition and the love of fame. But it doesn’t work. The series’ thematic sightlines are off and its writing is a few tiers lower than its model. If The Wire is a star detective, Unsolved is a misguided mall cop.
The strategy is the same, but the execution isn’t there. Kading has a partner, Daryn Dupree (Bokeem Woodbine), and a federal task force, while Poole has a partner, Fred Miller (Jamie McShane). Simpson simply doesn’t have the charisma for the heroic hard-line detective, but with McShane’s help the pair are certainly more watchable than the scattershot group helmed by Duhamel’s scruffy bore. That said, neither are much fun when they’re all speaking with the same mix of logical jumps, head-beating foreshadowing, and obvious exposition. While the plot moves forward thanks to conversations, the exposition wears you down; it pushes X towards Y without artistry. Nobody would call Google Maps an artist.
That said, Unsolved has more to offer than a cold digital reenactment, like the Wikipedia article of the same subject matter. The archival footage and real photographs edited in are tasty directorial flourishes that, alongside some whip-pan cinematography, add gravity to the case while the actual policework is as soft as a bounce house.
There are intercut sequences highlighting different interrogation approaches and interrogation responses, which lead into shots built so long that parking lots feel like the Mojave, which lead into the untameable chaos of a shooting. But the writing underneath it all is an inelegant jumble. No matter the visual logic in place, the words and thoughts driving the narrative either wither and die when asked to stand up to the heated direction or grow so fast they cover it up, like a house under ivy.
On small-scale level, the dialogue gives some stodgy white people some stodgy white people things to say, such as, “Jesus, I should’ve been a rapper” and the most strained enunciation of “Thee Notorious Bee Eye Gee” in recorded history. Every white person exposed to rap music treats it like an auditory fart, wrinkling their nose and excusing themselves from the room.
Unsolved tries to jam the characterization of a much longer show into its 10 episodes. That means every side conversation is something like:
“I always preferred baseball to golf.”
“Thought about going pro, but it didn’t work out, so I did the next best thing and became a cop like my old man.”
That’s a flood of character details with no solicitation or depth. It’s like me saying, as an aside in this review, that oh, by the way, I always dreamed of being a computer programmer, but a terrible accident when I was young made me have to watch a lot of TV growing up and I became hooked. That’s a detail that can color the thing you’re reading or watching, but when it comes up out of nowhere, it just makes the character sound crazy and the writer seem lazy.
On a large-scale level, the very act of watching two cases beat their heads against the wall of silence that comes from ingrained anti-snitch cultures isn’t very fun to watch. There are difficult cases, and then there’s watching the ocean crash against the cliffs over and over again. And the worst part is that here, the series tells us it’s sure one side is right.
Unsolved idolizes Tupac and Biggie’s fame, youth, and talent—the rappers are often backlit with golden rays of sunshine like they’re Golden Age starlets—and the supposedly winning nature of a playful fight between people in their mid-twenties, using real (but unloaded) guns while a narrator reflects on how they were just kids, is the most uncomfortably American thing I’ve ever seen. Poole begins asking the wrong questions about his department’s involvement (which has its own frustrations, but also leads to someone putting a hilariously non-threatening drawing of a turd on his desk that Simpson looks at like it’s a hate crime) and Kading loses himself in the case in the same way. But these characters aren’t interesting because they aren’t even close to the priority when the plot is still so famous and juicy.
Unsolved eventually builds to something with more closure than the case actually has, with certainty shaking its fist at the system instead of multiple systems and characters shaking their fists at each other. The whole series is like this. Why should its conclusion be any different?
Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and The Notorious B.I.G. premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on USA Network.
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.