There are Presidents of the United States who’ve been played less onscreen than Suge Knight. Which is right and proper: Who needs a biopic about Fillmore, Harding, Harrison, or the other Harrison? Whereas the oft-incarcerated former CEO of Death Row Records haunts this century’s portrayal of the end of last century, a red-suited fixture in rap biopics Notorious, Straight Outta Compton, and last year’s All Eyez On Me.
In the retelling, Knight has come to symbolize so many of the most spectacular and tragic ideas about gangsta rap—the glamour and the violence, the big money and the street. The fact that he didn’t rap makes him even more ideal as an industry symbol, like how Steve Jobs never coded, or how Walt Disney only became Walt Disney when he stopped drawing.
Dominic Santana played Knight in All Eyez on Me, and he’s back as one of about 377 costars in USA’s true-crime bio-epic Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G. (premieres tonight at 9 p.m. ET on USA) Santana’s good in the role, but like everyone else in Unsolved, he gets lost in a confusing chronological shuffle. Unsolved crosscuts between two investigations into the murders of Tupac Shakur and Christopher “Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace. In 1997, a pair of LAPD Robbery Homiciders look into the Biggie murder and start to graph a connection to the death of Tupac. Detective Russell Poole (Jimmi Simpson) is a fastidious workaholic who carries around a secret shame. Detective Fred Miller (Jamie McShane) is cheerful and dismissive, the kind of man who uses a Las Vegas business trip to put on an Aloha shirt and lose all his money playing blackjack.
Both investigators are real people, but their dynamic still suggests the rude cop-dude cop chemistry Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson epitomized in True Detective. And like True Detective, Unsolved immediately skips forward to the bleak ambiguity of a neverending murder investigation. In 2006, Detective Greg Kading (Josh Duhamel) assembles a federal task force—nominally to solve the Biggie murder, but mainly to lay out every possible suspect on a Carrie Mathison vision board.
There’s a slight coloration effect to orient you in these different time periods: Bluescale 2000s, yellowy 90s. (If I recall my Matrix correctly, that means 2006 is The Real and 1997 is the simulation.) And then there are scenes set before and around the murders, with Wavvy Jonez as Biggie and Marcc Rose as Tupac. Those sequences are shot in a different aspect ratio, a more cinematic widescreen, with a burst of color that makes the later timelines feel life-drained by comparison.
Unsolved gets Biggie and Tupac right, at least. Rose catches the intense curiosity that always seemed to blaze in Shakur’s eyes. There’s a scene where a couple adoring teens approach him in a parking lot, and Rose cycles so quickly through emotional states—paranoid fury, cheerful meet-and-greet enthusiasm, melancholy confusion. You feel that he hates his fans, can’t live without them, and worries about them: The superstar’s dilemma, in a few blistering moments of screen time. Jonez doesn’t quite replicate Biggie’s royal swagger, but he radiates a real sweetness. The scenes with Biggie and Tupac can feel a bit legend-printing, though, filmed with the awkwardness of an A&E re-enactment show.
The bigger problem: In attempting to tell a sprawling story with no real ending, the Unsolved producers have overstretched themselves. Executive producer Anthony Hemingway is a fine journeyman TV director who worked on The Wire and Treme before winning an Emmy for his brilliant work on American Crime Story: The People v. OJ Simpson. Hemingway directed much of Unsolved, and you can recognize how the strategy here aims simultaneously for David Simon-ish maximalist realism (lots of cops investigating lots of suspects) and Ryan Murphy-ish celebrity unrealism (the cops are careful to mention that Tupac was dating Quincy Jones’ daughter).
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Meanwhile, series creator Kyle Long worked on Suits and The Good Guys, very charming series about very charming people who huddle together in cool offices figuring stuff out. No coincidence, maybe, that Unsolved feels most comfortable when the 1997 detectives talk through the case at their desks, or when the federal task force assembles into a rowdy ensemble of crimesolvers. But too many of the cops feel like ciphers, unsubtle mouthpieces for conspiracy theories (did the LAPD do this?) and counter-theories (Cops do this? No way!)
Duhamel is, to a certain extent, playing the focal character; the series is based on a book written by Kading. And Duhamel’s, er, making some interesting decisions: Rocking a perpetual backwards cap and the occasional unbuttoned-flannel overshirt, he looks like an NCIS investigator going undercover as Poochie the Dog. In the 1997 thread, Simpson is also, er, making some interesting decisions. The actor—so good in Westworld, Black Mirror, It’s Always Sunny in Phildaelphia, the list goes on—is going miles over the top. His Poole is a gesticulating, overemphasizing, kamikaze-running truthseeker. It’s one of the most delightful cop performances on television since Vincent D’Onofrio started chewing his way through Law & Order: Criminal Intent, but it pushes Unsolved further toward pastiche.
Which is too bad. There are fascinating stories within the sprawl. Bokeem Woodbine and Wendell Pierce play two members of the federal task force. They both have their own frustrations about life as an African American cop on the police force. Their conversations have a sharpness the rest of the show can’t match. It’s easy to see why: As the parallel investigations uncover curious alliances between officers, rappers, and gangsters, the black cops sit uneasily at the nexus point, unblinkingly aware of the corruption at the department and on the streets.
And there are little moments that shock Unsolved to life: As Tupac lies bleeding from multiple gunshot wounds, the first responders on the scene start putting his friend and his bodyguard in handcuffs. “Can’t you see he’s the victim?” the bodyguard asks the cop. The best idea that powers Unsolved is that too many people in 1997 couldn’t see anything, really, writing off the end of two shining musical careers as more CNN-ready thug violence. (“He was just a gangster with a microphone!” is how one Vegas cop describes Tupac.)
I’m not sure what kind of answers Unsolved wants to uncover. Kading’s book ultimately pointed fingers towards Knight and Sean “Puffy” Combs. You suspect the end result of Unsolved will be safely lawsuit-proof. Every episode ends with the onscreen text: “Twenty years after the murders, the police still haven’t arrested or charged anyone in connection with the crimes.” The absence of justice crackles with real-world energy, but the show lacks a dramatic center, cycling through musical-biopic hagiography and procedural-miniseries dullness. B-