The killings of Tupac Shakur, portrayed by Marcc Rose, and Christopher “Biggie” Wallace, played by Wavyy Jonez, are the subject of “Unsolved,” a new cold case, true-crime series.
USA Network The killings of Tupac Shakur, portrayed by Marcc Rose, and Christopher “Biggie” Wallace, played by Wavyy Jonez, are the subject of “Unsolved,” a new cold case, true-crime series.
USA only slightly exaggerates when it calls the killings of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. “the two most famous unsolved cases of all time.” But hype aside, no one can dispute the questions that remain unanswered about the 1996 drive-by shooting of Pac and the slaying of Biggie Smalls six months later.
The killings are the subject of “Unsolved,” a new cold case, true-crime series premiering on Tuesday, Feb. 27, with “The Murders of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G.” Remember the CBS show “Cold Case,” which aired for seven years and is still enjoying a healthy afterlife in reruns? Those cases were always solved at the end, but they were fiction. Real-life cold cases are not always wrapped up quite so neatly, and that’s surely true for the killings of the two giants of rap music.
The new series is created and written by Kyle Long, with Emmy-winner Anthony Hemingway directing. Together, with an incredible cast, they try to untangle an exceptionally complex story, focusing on what led up to the killings through the lens of two police investigations by the Los Angeles Police Department, several years apart. The first was headed by Detectives Russell Poole (Jimmi Simpson) and Fred Miller (Jamie McShane). The second was conducted by a special unit headed by Detective Greg Kading (Josh Duhamel).
In “Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G.,” Bokeem Woodbine plays Officer In Charge Daryn Dupree, left, and Josh Duhamel is Detective Greg Kading. Photo: Isabella Vosmikova, USA Network Photo: Isabella Vosmikova, USA Network In “Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G.,” Bokeem Woodbine plays Officer In Charge Daryn Dupree, left, and Josh Duhamel is Detective Greg Kading.
The series is riveting, but it also makes you work. Hemingway worked on “American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson.” Unlike that case — officially still unsolved — the interwoven stories of “Unsolved” are not as well known, did not include gavel-to-gavel trial coverage on TV, but have prompted a variety of theories over the years as to who was or was not involved in the killings.
Viewers already familiar with the rise of rap music — figures like Suge Knight, Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs (as he was known then), Snoop Dogg, KeffeD, the East Coast-West Coast rivalry and links to the Bloods and Crips gangs — will have an easier time following the peripatetic chronology of the show’s structure. The series skips around from the shootings themselves, to earlier times when Tupac (Marcc Rose) and Biggie (Wavyy Jonez) were friends, then to each of the two belated LAPD investigations.
It may be a challenge, but the challenge gives the series exceptional authenticity, even as it deals with speculative information.
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The one thing the separate investigations have in common is that Poole and Kading are driven to solve these cases. Poole and his partner Miller are part of the robbery-homicide division and assigned to investigate the killing of Kevin “Tracksuit” Gaines (Coley Speaks) in a road-rage incident involving L.A. cop Frank Lyga (P.J. Marshall). It turns out that Gaines was also an undercover L.A. cop. Gaines had been involved with Suge Knight’s (Dominic L. Santana) ex-wife and had ties to Knight’s record company, Death Row Records. Turns out, Gaines isn’t the only cop who may have had ties to Death Row, and that eventually leads Poole to suspect other cops, including David Mack (Omar Gooding), may have been involved in the Biggie Smalls’ hit.
Poole becomes obsessed, defying orders from above to stand down from his investigation into the Smalls killing and charging the department with a cover-up because he believes fellow officers are involved. Poole won’t be deterred, and we see the toll it takes on him mentally and physically.
A few years later, Kading heads a task force focusing on the killings, with a particular focus on that of Shakur, who was killed only shortly after an altercation at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas where he accompanied Knight to a boxing match between Mike Tyson and Bruce Seldon. The dispute involved a member of the Crips named Orlando Anderson (Mychal Thompson). Kading’s account of the investigation, the book “Murder Rap: The Untold Story of the Biggie Smalls & Tupac Shakur Murder Investigations,” served as a source for the USA series.
Long’s script is richly detailed. The dialogue is florid, colorfully profane and convincingly authentic at every turn. In a way, it’s almost Shakespearean in its complexity and serves as the basis for a host of magnificent performances, beginning with Rose and Jonez as Pac and Biggie. One is brash and artistically ambitious, but fascinated by the writings of Sun Tzu in “The Art of War.” He takes the Chinese military philosopher’s teachings as his personal and professional gospel. Christopher Wallace, a.k.a. the Notorious B.I.G., may be less demonstrative than Pac, but he is no less committed to his art. He is devoted to the mother Voletta (Aisha Hinds) who raised him and often comes across as a gentle giant.
What causes these two friends to become enemies? The answers are as complicated as everything else in the exploding world of rap music in the 1990s. In the end, we have to chalk it up to forces beyond either artist’s control, as well as misinformation and manipulation by others who want to make money off their talent.
Simpson is always a magnetic actor, no matter what character he disappears into. He reaches a whole new level of performance here, bringing us along as Russell Poole struggles to hang on to his life as he gets pulled into his obsessions over the case. Not coincidentally, he is as driven to reach his goal as Tupac and Biggie were, and the obsessiveness is taking its toll.
Superb work is also forthcoming from Duhamel, Hinds, Brent Sexton as Brian Tyndall, whose career bridges both investigations, Bokeem Woodbine as Officer Daryn Dupree, Camille Chen as Poole’s colleague Grace, Sola Bamis as Tupac’s mother, and Luke James as Puff Daddy, among others.
Long and Hemingway take a lot of chances with “Unsolved,” and sometimes come dangerously close to confusing their audience. But their collective drive pays off. Even if we don’t always know where we’re going, the ride is never less than exciting and challenging.
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