Twenty years ago, two of the most famous musicians in the world were murdered, in public, within six months of each other. Almost everyone knows about Tupac Shakur and Christopher Wallace, a.k.a. Biggie Smalls, but no one has ever pinpointed exactly who killed them or why. Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G., the new USA series from showrunner Kyle Long, dives into attempts to solve the cases. The story is set across three different timelines: 1993, when Biggie (newcomer Wavyy Jonez) and Tupac (Marcc Rose, who also played the rapper in Straight Outta Compton) are young friends; 1997, as Los Angeles detective Russell Poole (Jimmi Simpson) leads the investigation into Biggie’s death; and 2006, when a new task force headed by Greg Kading (Josh Duhamel) reopens the case.
“I moved to L.A. just months before Biggie got killed, and I was around Biggie’s age,” Long says. “I just have been fascinated by it ever since.” But it was reading Kading’s book Murder Rap that made the story click for Long. “I think that’s an aspect of the investigation even the ‘dorks’ about this case don’t know that much about. I was like, Now I know how to do this as a television show: with a dual-investigation story line.”
Shifting in and out of the three different timelines is the show’s main puzzle. Fortunately, director Anthony Hemingway (The People v. O.J. Simpson, Underground) found a way to visually differentiate them while highlighting their different cultural contexts.
“It’s a balancing act, trying to define each layer of this story,” Hemingway says. “With Russell Poole’s investigation, we were thinking of his approach, which was very obsessive and myopic. That caused me to think of a color palette that somewhat respected the period but also tapped into his psychology which was very toxic and cluttered. When Greg Kading re-opened the case, he had a clearer and more organized big-picture approach. That allowed us to be cleaner with things and it somewhat fell into a color palette that was cooler. The Biggie/Tupac timeline was more of an event. It was fun, giving the color palette an aspirational feel that spoke to dreams and hope and the innocence of those guys, and even tapped into the music videos of the time.”
As a veteran of Westworld, Simpson is certainly used to shows with multiple timelines. But his portrayal of Poole, an obsessive detective who isn’t afraid to push buttons and promote theories that alienate his police co-workers, is a departure from typical Simpson characters. Yet Simpson makes Poole compelling, capping off a remarkable recent run for the actor that also included a major role in the standout Black Mirror episode “U.S.S. Callister.”
“I’m known for being a bit spazzy and cynical, so that’s what a lot of people ask me to do on film. But this guy was so absolutely the opposite of that,” Simpson says. “I was like, how do I tackle this person? So I just spent a large amount of time with Russell’s face and behavior. He passed a year and a half before we started this, but I had this 20-minute clip of him that I carried around on my phone that I would just listen to and watch. He’s got this forward jaw and this intensity that I don’t own. It was just about fabricating that, and the more you fabricate it, the more you’re able to execute it as your being.”
The cases remain unsolved, but Long hopes that by exploring all the different ways people have thought about these murders over the years, new insights will surface.
“We’re following what a cop thought in ’97, and then we’re following what the task force landed on in the later years. We’re not saying that either one’s right, we’re just telling you what happened,” Long says. “But we’ve got some fascinating stuff on screen that people don’t know about. It’s an unsolved murder, but I think the finale will give some closure to it all. It’s not a happy ending, I will tell you that.”
Unsolved premieres Feb. 27 on USA.