For a show called (branded, really) “Unsolved,” the first season certainly drives toward a definitive ending. The new USA anthology series serves as a detailed, time-jumping, and exploratory journey into multiple, years-long investigations, but it isn’t a nuanced take on the criminal justice system (or nuanced at all, for that matter). Nor is “Unsolved” a human story meant to honor the victims or the men seeking justice for their deaths. It plays out like a mystery, and by the end of the seventh episode (out of 10 total), “The Murders of Tupac and The Notorious B.I.G.” takes a stand behind one theory.
For cable TV, perhaps that should be expected. It would take a lot of moxie to launch a franchise based around big questions without any answers — kind of like making an entire TV show based around a mystery that will never be solved — and USA’s big prestige play clearly aims to be the network’s “American Crime Story.” Like NBC’s “Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders” before it (both channels, for what it’s worth, are owned by NBC Universal), “The Murders of Tupac and The Notorious B.I.G.” is meant to be the first entry in a new, ongoing, anthology franchise that will reap the awards and ratings FX’s hit did just a few years ago (but not with its most recent season).
That might work out for USA. There are enough elements of pure entertainment to hold viewers’ interest, be it the basic thrill of seeing Biggie (Wavyy Jonez) and Tupac (Marcc Rose) plow through famous and infamous moments in music history or the elevated artistry of Jimmi Simpson’s performance. (I take it back: The “Westworld” star always works in nuance, so there’s one aspect of “Unsolved” — his character — given delicate shading.) Fans may even walk away with more catharsis toward the rappers’ deaths than before, but “Unsolved” isn’t brilliant investigative journalism or even must-see TV: It’s a bluntly told story that falls back on cliches as often as it falls prey to expository redundancies, even if it offers an ending that real life hasn’t.
Telling three stories at once, “Unsolved” makes it easy to pick favorites. First, there’s the story of Biggie and Tupac. Involving a lot of big names who don’t look as much like their real-life counterparts as Marcc Rose does Tupac (who also played Shakur in “Straight Outta Compton”), it’s the storyline that’s most easy to engage with, followed closely by the LAPD’s initial 1997 investigation into their murders. Simpson plays Detective Russell Poole, a homicide cop who gets too deeply invested in the case, but the actor slowly rolls out Poole’s mannerisms slowly and specifically, making his obsession look and feel legitimate. You’re as frustrated as he is, which can’t be said for the 2006 arc focusing on Det. Greg Kading (Josh Duhamel) and Det. Daryn Dupree (Bokeem Woodbine).
Motivated by a massive lawsuit pending against the police department from Christopher Wallace’s mom, Kading is tasked with solving the unsolvable case in order to save the city $400 million. Predictably, he hits a lot of walls, and the progress he does make isn’t all that interesting until the very end.
There are specific positives (Anthony Hemingway’s direction in early episodes shows off the solid production design) and negatives (how often characters clarify that Christopher Wallace is Biggie Smalls), but like the three separate arcs in the show, “Unsolved” all boils down to three separate mistakes:
- As mentioned, it doesn’t embrace the idea of unsolved crimes enough to be artistically or otherwise profound. For instance, “The People V. O.J. Simpson” delivers a verdict, and thus solves the crime, but it doesn’t try to take a side in the ongoing debate over whether or not O.J. really did do it. Instead, it uses the case itself to make relevant points about systemic issues and racial divisions in America. “Unsolved” is much simpler, when it should be more — or at least equally — complex. It’s content to let the case remain unsolved officially, but the show’s focus is on solving it.
- The dialogue is clunky at best, and the performances are unremarkable. When you hire the likes of everyman Josh Duhamel and stick Bokeem Woodbine with an all-too-average cop character, not even the great Jimmi Simpson (an exception yet again) can make up for recap after recap of what’s going on in the various investigations.
- “Unsolved: The Murder of Tupac and The Notorious B.I.G.” is based on Greg Kadig’s book, “Murder Rap: The Untold Story of Biggie Smalls & Tupac Shakur Murder Investigations”: How dare USA deny TV fans the title “Murder Rap”? How could those executives choose safe branding over an outrageous but accurate and curiosity-spiking moniker? For those familiar with the case, they’re probably aware of the book (plus, they still get to use the words “Murder Rap” when talking about the show), and for newbies (a.k.a. the youths), their minds will be filled with questions: “Is ‘Murder Rap’ a song?” “Is it new?” “Can I download it?” Picture the next 10 weeks talking about a show called “Murder Rap”: “Hey, Barry, what’d you do last night?” “Oh, I just watched the new episode of “Murder Rap” — have you seen it?” And can you imagine what TV Twitter would’ve done with such a title, especially after seeing what they did with “The Young Pope”? What would Damon Lindelof’s Instagram look like right now, if “Murder Rap” was premiering tonight instead of “Unsolved”? What would your Instagram look like? What would the world’s?
“Unsolved” may spark some conversation because of its theorizing. Considering how often people talk about Biggie and Tupac, it’s clear why USA would want to launch a new series with their controversial, conspiracy-driving deaths. But it doesn’t make much of an impact beyond that ballsy move (which, really, could be dialed back or amped up in the final three hours). Not ambitious enough to break the mold but generically effective while fitting within it,
“Murder Rap” “Unsolved” isn’t all that it could be or enough of what it should be.
“Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and The Notorious B.I.G.” premieres Tuesday, February 27 at 10 p.m. on the USA Network.