Why is it so hard to make a good movie about Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G.? The intertwined story of the two ’90s rappers—who became iconic, mural-sized martyrs after being gunned down, just six months apart, in 1996/1997—has all the makings of a compelling drama, from their nigh-mythological upbringings, to a friendship that festered into hip-hop’s internecine East Coast/West Coast war, to the way their deaths still symbolize the kind of institutional failings that could allow the murders of two young black men to go unresolved, even when they’re two of the most famous artists in the world.
And yet, both attempts to tell that story so far, 2009’s Notorious and 2017’s All Eyez On Me, have ranged from serviceably mediocre to risibly bad, with each falling prey to the superficial, hammy trappings of the biopic. Nick Broomfield’s 2002 documentary, Biggie & Tupac, fared slightly better, but even it felt sloppy and incomplete. To be fair, some of this can attributed to the impossibility of cramming such a complicated, richly American tale into just a couple hours. But with 10 hour-long episodes to work with, USA’s new limited series Unsolved: The Murders Of Tupac And The Notorious B.I.G. has no such excuse. It has nothing but time to dig into what makes these men so enduring, two decades later, or to lay out a convincing case for the same conspiracy that Broomfield’s film haphazardly strung together. Yet it squanders it all on a shallow, surprisingly rote procedural, one that ultimately treats its two larger-than-life subjects with about the same significance as a couple of Law & Order corpses. Perhaps the title should be a giveaway: Unsolved is only interested in Biggie and Tupac as victims, not people—and certainly not as artists.
Here is the most telling thing about Unsolved, ostensibly a show about the famous rappers Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur: It didn’t secure the rights to any Biggie or Tupac songs. Well, that’s not quite true; the first episode does feature brief snatches of Biggie’s “Hypnotize,” including an a cappella version rapped by a middle-aged white woman. There is also a scene where Biggie (Wavyy Jonez) and Tupac (Marcc Rose) freestyle, to somewhat convincing ends. But while the soundtrack is filled with contemporaneous stuff from the likes of DJ Quik, Slick Rick, and Wu-Tang Clan, you won’t hear a lick of what the show repeatedly takes pains to remind us is some of the greatest, most important music ever made.
Instead, Unsolved makes the somewhat baffling decision to serve up various Jackie Jormp-Jomp soundalikes—slightly off, mock versions of songs like “Who Shot Ya” and “Hit ’Em Up” with altered beats and lyrics, as well as some new, wholly invented tunes that were seemingly written by some kind of Genius-trawling bot. (“Yo, I got a savage flow / Pockets deeper than a pimp with a magic ho,” goes one of these Fake Biggie songs.) It’s both deeply embarrassing and unintentionally hilarious. And it’s emblematic of the glib approach Unsolved: The Murders Of Tupac And The Notorious B.I.G. takes to its ostensible subjects.
That’s because, despite the title and everything suggested by its marketing, this show isn’t actually about Biggie and Tupac. Rather, the focus is on the two detectives investigating their deaths, decades apart: Russell Poole, played with a sort of huffy, wounded arrogance by Westworld’s Jimmi Simpson; and the much gruffer Greg Kading, played by Josh Duhamel putting on a backwards baseball cap. In 1997, as the tenacious, doggedly moral Poole (a guy who’s repeatedly referred to, even by himself, as a “Boy Scout”) delves into Biggie’s killing, he begins to uncover hints of the far-reaching L.A.P.D. corruption that would eventually turn into the Rampart scandal. Meanwhile, his investigation is crosscut with Kading’s own in 2007, where Kading has reopened Poole’s long-cold case with the help of a federal task force, in hopes of finally putting it all to rest.
Poole’s and Kading’s respective stories take up roughly 90 percent of Unsolved. In the other 10 percent, we get the barest, most perfunctory glimpses of Biggie and Tupac’s lives from 1993 onward, sweeping through every Wikipedia highlight. If you tuned in expecting anything close to insight, what you get instead are scenes like the one where Biggie picks up a book from Tupac’s coffee table and asks, “Hey.... Machiavelli?” (So that’s where he got that!) But even the huge, defining moments in their lives are dispatched with a similarly desultory shrug. Biggie’s wife, Faith Evans, pops up without explanation or introduction in the fourth episode, then disappears again. The entire ordeal of Tupac’s sexual assault charge—from meeting his accuser Ayanna Jackson, to the year Tupac spent on trial, to his nine-month prison sentence—takes up, generously speaking, 10 minutes of screen time, dispatched as quickly as possible so we can get back to more white cops jawing at each other. Although tellingly, the show brakes to rubberneck at every moment of violence, from Tupac’s infamous shooting at Quad Studios to their respective deaths, the camera lingering in slow-motion over their bullet-riddled bodies and blood gurgles.
Those interlocking, often needlessly confusing time-jumps—along with the show’s somberly bluesy, stylized credits—hints at the prestige aspirations for Unsolved, a show clearly so important to the USA Network, it’s allowed to drop as many F-bombs as it wants. But it’s not just aping True Detective. There are also diluted strains of The Wire—most obviously in Duhamel’s timeline, where a rogue, motley crew of outcast cops spends most of its time bickering dispiritedly around mugshot-strewn corkboards, and hey, one of them is even an exasperated veteran played by Wendell Pierce, who’s distinguished from Bunk only by his taste for bolo ties.
Obviously, there are bits of TV’s current, American Crime Story-inspired, tabloid sociology in there as well, with the pretext that by examining the scandals of the past we can understand more about our present. Given that director Anthony Hemingway—who helms most of the episodes—worked on both that show and The Wire, Unsolved often looks like the prestige drama it so clearly wants to be. (It’s not for nothing that its ads trumpet, “From A Director Of The People V. O.J. Simpson.”) And with some better-than-they-need-to-be performances from Pierce, Simpson, and Bokeem Woodbine—who conveyed such off-kilter, strangely empathetic menace in Fargo, and is here all but wasted as the task force’s token, rap-loving detective—sometimes it very nearly gets there.
But ultimately, just like those Fake Biggie songs, it all comes off as a hollow imitation once you really listen to it. Unsolved’s default is a string of clichéd cop-speak; Duhamel regularly spits out hard-boiled crap like, “Is my objective to solve the case, or cover the department’s ass?” while Pierce is actually forced to deliver the line, “You may not like the way I do things, but I get the job done!” The rest of the time, it’s all clumsy exposition dumps and self-consciously “streetwise” dialogue, sprinkled with awkward rap references. Unsolved may strut like a gangsta, but it sounds like a narc:
DETECTIVE 1: Maybe it is just a gang murder? Or maybe it’s just the whole East Coast-West Coast music war—y’know, with the New York rap artists hating the Los Angeles rap artists.
DETECTIVE 2: Jesus Christ, a rap war? I should be playing golf right now!
SUSPECT: He did security for Snoop.
DETECTIVE: Snoop… Dogg?
DETECTIVE 1: Look, I worked those streets a long time.
DETECTIVE 2: I was raised in those streets.
TUPAC: They had me take an AIDS test!
BIGGIE: Word! For a movie?
SUSPECT: I knew Biggie for years, back from my party planning days.
DETECTIVE: I bet that shit was on point!
SUSPECT: Yeah…. yeah. It was wild.
BIGGIE: I don’t want to just make money. I want stacks on top of stacks.
TUPAC’S BODYGUARD: You see, all eyes were on Tupac. They always were.
Granted, there’s a certain level of ironic enjoyment to all this—and I won’t lie: Hearing Tupac’s bodyguard intone, with deadly solemnity, “You see, all eyes were on Tupac” is really fucking funny. But that suggests a far more entertaining show than Unsolved actually is, and it goes without saying that everyone involved here deserves better—particularly its subjects. As Christopher “Biggie” Wallace, Jonez shares Biggie’s physically imposing-yet-cuddly grandeur, and even more impressively, he nails that wheezy, slightly sleepy flow in the couple of scenes where he’s allowed to flaunt it. Rose (who also briefly played Shakur in Straight Outta Compton), may not sound like Tupac, exactly, but he effortlessly captures his kinetic energy, an almost-goofy exuberance that could turn volcanic in an instant. It would have been fun to watch these guys play off each other more, but again, they’re barely given the chance. On this, the supposed Biggie & Tupac Show, Poole’s generically curmudgeonly, rap-hating partner (Jamie McShane) gets 10 times more lines than either. It’d be easy to come away from Unsolved knowing nothing about Biggie and Tupac, other than they liked weed and partying, and then they got shot.
What you’re left with is just another grimly tedious procedural in which cops argue, chase down minor leads, then drown their nightly sorrows on barstools while their personal and professional lives unravel—the complexities of a possible conspiracy between corrupt police officers, gang members, and Death Row Records eventually becoming just a litany of occasionally famous names. Worse, whatever intrigue that overarching mystery might hold is dampened by the fact that it remains officially unsolved (it’s right there in the title!), so whatever incremental, episodic advances the characters make are still purely speculative and, ultimately, meaningless.
Midway through all this surface-level drudgery, Woodbine’s character—not for the first time—chides his fellow detectives for never actually listening to Biggie and Tupac’s music, insisting that everything you need to know about their stories is already right there, in the songs this show couldn’t even get permission to use. You’d be better off taking his advice.