Biggie & Tupac & Some Things Maybe We Just Aren’t Meant To Know

Whether you think we ever need to wade back into the murders of rappers Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls, USA’s new Unsolved will take you there anyway and make you not want to leave.

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Marcc Rose as Tupac Shakur.

Unsolved, a 10-part series that premieres Tuesday at 10 p.m. ET, does what the best shows in this suddenly hot genre have learned to do. It sets up a series of tense, engaging human dramas in which the crime itself constantly moves between background and foreground.

Creators Anthony Hemingway and Mark Taylor roll out two parallel storylines, a decade apart. One is the initial police investigation into the 1997 murder of Biggie, the other a reopened investigation a decade later when it had become a cold case.

They share common threads, including the sense that if the cops can learn who shot Biggie, that could lead them to Tupac’s killer as well. This hope is frequently derailed by the frustrating and unsurprising fact that even though Biggie was shot to death in a car on a main street, nobody seems to have seen anything or know anything about it.

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Josh Duhamel as Greg Kading.

Josh Duhamel plays Greg Kading, the detective who catches the cold case. Kading’s prominence here isn’t an accident, since the real-life Kading wrote a book based on his experiences in the case. That book provides much of the material from which Unsolved in adapted.

The reason Kading has been put on the case, and strongly urged to finally solve it, is that Biggie’s mother Voletta Wallace (Aisha Hinds) has sued the LAPD for $400 million, claiming that’s what his murder cost him and his family in potential lifetime earnings.

Voletta Wallace isn’t just throwing a Hail Mary here. She’s claiming the LAPD was complicit in a coverup, based on what she was told by Los Angeles Detective Russell Poole (Jimmi Simpson), who worked the original case.

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Jimmi Simpson as Russell Poole.

And voila! The other storyline here follows Poole and that original investigation, which Poole worked with his partner Fred Miller (Jamie McShane).

They aren’t the suspected perps in the coverup. That allegedly happens higher up, amid suggestions that some cops and officials had arrangements with music industry and gang-affiliated people like the notorious promoter Shug Knight.

Hints about those kinds of shadowy machinations emerge slowly, though Unsolved itself moves at a nice fast clip. It just has to spend some time upfront on setup, for the benefit of viewers who didn’t follow the rap music world in the 1990s and therefore may not understand the importance of Biggie and Tupac.

Unsolved shows the volatility and violence in that world, without unduly sensationalizing it. It notes the intersection of rap and hip-hop culture with street gangs, a sometimes fragile situation reflected in the fact that Tupac branded himself with the phrase “Thug Life.”

At the same time, perhaps a bit ironically, Tupac was becoming less of a rapper and more of a businessman, branching out into movies and production. What Jay-Z became, Tupac was shooting for.

While word on the streets has long had Biggie being shot in retaliation for Tupac’s death a few months earlier, Unsolved paints Tupac and Biggie as good friends when they met. While some sources have said they later fell out, early scenes here have them partying together. At one point Tupac (Marcc Rose), Biggie (Wavyy Jonez) and their posses break out a gym bag full of Tupac’s unloaded guns and run out into the yard to have a pretend shootout, like 7-year-olds playing cowboys and Indians.

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Wavyy Jonez as Biggie Smalls.

Unsolved scores no points for subtlety at moments like that, though the scene does make the point that while these guys had both become rich and famous in their early 20s, in some ways they were still kids.

It’s not a spoiler alert to point out that the real-life cops have never filed charges in either death. Unsolved strongly hints at a couple of theories, while raising uncomfortable questions about how the system worked and certain individuals behaved in these admittedly difficult cases.

Unsolved, accordingly, will keep your attention. As they say in the music biz, it has some killer hooks.

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David Hinckley wrote for the New York Daily News for 35 years. Now he drives his wife crazy by randomly quoting Bob Dylan and “Casablanca.”

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