The serial strip-mining of the ‘80s and ‘90s shows no sign of slowing down. One way to indicate where “Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G.” fits on the retro-drama continuum is to say that it’s not in the realm of FX’s “The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” which remains the gold standard for this kind of thing, but it’s better than “Waco,” “Manhunt: Unabomber” and a few other less adept entries. “Unsolved” is regularly tripped up by the sheer complexity of the tale it’s trying to tell, but there’s a winning energy about it that kept me watching.
It’s easy to get confused about the identities and histories of some of the people on screen, but you can’t fault “Unsolved” for not offering plenty explanations and refreshers on where things stand. Characters regularly spout a good deal of exposition, which is actually helpful the further down this rabbit hole you travel.
As a show, “Unsolved” is best described as the serialized depiction of one of those corkboards covered in yarn, photos and clues scribbled on index cards that you often see in conspiracy-driven TV shows and films. There’s a lot going on in this narrative — much of it densely complex, and the action spans more than two decades — but its verve, sense of place and a few truly excellent performances were enough to buoy me through the slower and knottier patches.
The first episode is one of several directed by executive producer Anthony Hemingway, who worked on the FX O.J. series, as well as any number of other well-regarded shows. With engaging energy and flair, the pilot lays out the basic structure of the show’s two main timelines: In 1997, the LAPD began investigating the murder of Christopher Wallace, a.k.a. The Notorious B.I.G. Around a decade later, LAPD cop Greg Kading (Josh Duhamel) led a multi-agency task force dedicated to solving that still unsolved case. Both inquiries ended up exploring not only the murder of Wallace but that of Tupac Shakur, the roots of the East Coast-West Coast animosity that flared up in late-‘90s hip hop, and the drug trade in Los Angeles.
As Det. Russell Poole (Jimmi Simpson) delves ever-deeper into these murky waters in the late ‘90s, he comes across an array of suspicious connections between L.A. gangs, Death Row Records and his own department. Many of the clues chased down by Poole — and Kading’s team a decade later — point toward wide-ranging police corruption and the possible involvement of cops in the Wallace case. (It’s worth noting that Kading is a co-executive producer on the project, which is based in part on a book he wrote.)
As Poole, Simpson is simply a delight to watch. He brings a coiled, springy alertness to the hard-working detective, who becomes something of a pariah within the LAPD, thanks to his willingness to delve into the links between certain connected cops and outside entities that may be involved in a whole string of shady endeavors. His bosses become uncomfortable with the unsavory facts he digs up, and about halfway through the series, “Unsolved” starts to vaguely resemble another FX drama, “The Shield.”
Despite the skill and charisma of Simpson, Duhamel and a few other cast members, however, “Unsolved” doesn’t have the kind of lean narrative that would allow it to provide truly meaty character studies. But the drama does provide a window into how corruption can thrive within a large institution, even when some on the inside find it reprehensible. At least one of Poole’s bosses comes to believe the investigator might be on to something, but finding proof of these alleged conspiracies — in either timeline — proves exceedingly difficult.
“Unsolved” appends a notice at the end of each episode explaining that no charges have ever been filed in either case, nor have any arrests been made. It also sketches out the worlds that Biggie and Tupac operated in, and in some of its strongest sequences, the drama depicts the friendship they had before everything went very wrong. One of “Unsolved’s” most redeeming qualities is its pragmatic, lived-in worldview, which avoids complete cynicism or naivete when it comes to the interactions between the police and the communities — most of them black and brown — over whom they have power. “Unsolved” paints a portrait of the strenuous efforts by some LAPD cops to solve these cases while also matter-of-factly depicting the casual racism that informed the actions and attitudes of many in the department.
At one point, two very different African-American cops working on Kading’s task force have a testy conversation about why a white guy is leading the team; Bokeem Woodbine’s character points out that, for once, a very powerful L.A. institution was devoting a great deal of resources to finding out who killed a black man and why. When it comes to those kinds of smart, informed vignettes about race, class, culture, friendship, loyalty and dogged — perhaps career-ending — curiosity, “Unsolved” is at its best. It tries, with some success, to explore institutional and personal failures that ripple outward into various communities, within the confines of a fairly conventional crime narrative.
Along the way, it hosts a convention for many of TV’s best character actors: Wendell Pierce, Woodbine, Jamie McShane, Brent Sexton and Aisha Hinds all do fine work. That said, the further one gets from Poole or the major developments in either police case, the shakier “Unsolved” gets. And though some of the rap-industry storylines drag and can be fairly superficial, it’s hard to stop thinking about how much actor Marcc Rose resembles his character, Tupac. The actor certainly imbues him with a memorable and vivid presence.
In the end, despite the ungainly amount of information it tries to parse, “Unsolved” has the propulsive energy and stylish pop of a pretty good nighttime soap. But it’s one that, to its credit, never loses sight of the untimely deaths that brought this whole complicated story to life.