‘Unsolved’ Explores Multiple Angles of the Tupac and Notorious B.I.G. Murders

Here is an interesting show as cluttered as its title. “Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and The Notorious B.I.G. attempts to dramatize three major storylines with multiple subplots, all revolving around two of the most infamous celebrity killings of the 1990s. It is not an exaggeration to say this first season of USA’s “Unsolved” has enough material it could have used for the next three. A lot of its seven episodes can be fascinating and rarely, if ever, boring. The production is slick and well-cast. What gets in the way are the multiple narratives. Every episode is a struggle to find adequate space for its zig-zagging timeline. The series never knows what story it wants to tell, it wants to cover two different investigations into the Tupac and Notorious B.I.G. murders, re-tell the life stories of the two rappers and still pile on the cops’ own personal issues. By the end we’re exhausted over a case where no one is yet to be arrested.

The show opens in 2006 ten years after rap icons Tupac Shakur and Christopher Wallace (Notorious B.I.G.) were gunned down under mysterious circumstances, the first in Las Vegas, the second in Los Angeles. LAPD detective Greg Kading (Josh Duhamel) is assigned to form a task force to reopen the case of the Wallace shooting. He recruits fellow detective Daryn Dupree (Bokeem Woodbine) to help him lead a team into the trove of evidence leftover from the previous inquiries into the killings. We then go back to 1997, as detectives Russell Poole (Jimmi Simpson) and Fred Miller (Jamie McShane) tackle the Wallace case mere months after the murder takes place. Their initial investigation uncovers an underworld of corrupt cops linked to Death Row Records and its intimidating boss Suge Knight (Dominic L. Santana) as well as the local Crips and Bloods street gangs. Parallel to all this we also follow the two icons, L.A.-based Tupac (Marcc Rose) and New York-based “Biggie” (Wavyy Jonez), who early in their careers are good friends, with Wallace looking up to Shakur as a role model. But soon the “gangsta rap” record business they pioneer takes on the very attitude of the street life, with an “East Coast versus West Coast” rivalry soon spiraling out of control.

Twenty-plus years later, the Tupac and Biggie murders have taken on the sort of aura you also get with cases like the JFK assassination. There is an endless labyrinth of names, theories, clues and evidence. The challenge is how to cull a compelling narrative out of an unsolved mess. The effort here is admirable. Executive producer Anthony Hemingway directs the pilot and was responsible for the look and tone of the smash hit “The People vs O.J. Simpson.” He brings some of that same visual flare and energy to “Unsolved,” shooting recreations of real events, or imagined moments with real life personas, with a cinematic gloss. An effective editing technique used through-out the show involves cutting from a recreation to an actual photograph of the moment. This has a great effect in the scene where Tupac’s murder takes place as he’s driving to a stop light with Suge Knight, a bystander takes a photo and the scene cuts to the actual photograph from that moment. The past is revived with impressive detail in the clothing, phones and snapshots of an era. Now two decades in the past, nostalgia for the 1990s is evident in TV shows and movies looking back and trying to make sense of that transitional decade.

Yet the show is so desperate to make sense of this particular case that it tries to cram a decade’s worth of storylines into seven episodes. The personal stories of both Tupac and Wallace have been told and re-told to the point where we don’t need the full biographies here (both artists were the subjects of feature films). A perfect reminder of this is the fact that Suge Knight is once again played with menace by Dominic Santana, who played the role in the Tupac bio “All Eyez on Me.” The show will follow Poole and Miller as they try to find links and suspects then cut to some random anecdote flashback about Tupac hanging out with Wallace, or Tupac’s stint in jail or Wallace having a moment with his conservative mother. And remember, the show still needs to find space to follow Kading’s own investigation which is more of a follow-up to the 1997 effort. Amazingly enough, the writers manage to find space for romantic interests and marital intrigue. Poole tries to save his marriage while a co-worker shows interest, and Kading is also trying to keep his marriage together and suspects his wife might have something going on with their son’s little league coach.

Because the show attempts to fit in so many angles, scenes feel like breathless recaps of the evidence as characters sit around offices throwing names, dates and facts around. However this is not exactly a boring show. Individual scenes have a great, true crime style and tone. The characters involved are all fascinating, and the questions are engrossing. The flaw here is that it is many fascinating pieces scattered around, when each section pieced together would make a satisfying whole. When the show works it is a journey into that strange period in hip-hop when a street gang ethos actually merged with an industry. The scenes with Tupac and Wallace maneuvering the underground of gangsters and the music biz are lurid and insightful, even if we’ve seen it before. The show concludes with its own angle on what happened, and there is an extra level of intrigue here considering this is a case that has not been closed.

The performances are good all around. Rose and Jonez are picture-perfect as Tupac and Wallace, and from the cops Simpson is a fantastic, nervous wreck as Poole. Duhamel’s Kading suffers from feeling like an add-on for at least the first five episodes. He becomes more interesting by the end, but by then there’s been too much story to go around for everyone.

“Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and The Notorious B.I.G.” is not a great success, but it’s not unwatchable. This is almost an example of too much of a good thing. By attempting to tell too many interesting stories, the show misses out on truly grabbing us with one good one.

Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and The Notorious B.I.G.” premieres Feb. 27 at 10 p.m. ET and airs Tuesdays on USA.