PASADENA, California — Last year, FX made it impossible not to obsess over O.J. Simpson. This year, they’re hoping they can do the same with Gianni Versace and the serial killer who murdered him.
So of course other networks were bound to join in and try to get a piece of that true-crime ratings juice.
Which brings us to Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G., USA’s 10-episode limited series, which premieres Feb. 27.
Unsolved jumps back and forth in time from 1997, the year Biggie Smalls was murdered, to 2007, when Detective Greg Kading (Josh Duhamel) and Officer Daryn Dupree (Bokeem Woodbine) are trying to close the still-unsolved case. And it aims to dispel all of the misconceptions about Smalls and Tupac Shakur, particularly for an audience that didn’t follow every detail in the case.
“There is a huge misunderstanding that these men were gangsters, and therefore that they should be seen in a negative light,” executive producer Mark Taylor told me at the Television Critics Association press tour here. “A lot of that came from the media. It’s an easy way to categorize people. It plays into a lot of racial fears. But it doesn’t capture who they were. It doesn’t fully capture who anyone is to say they’re a gangster.”
It’s a useful revisiting, based on the real-life Detective Kading’s book Murder Rap. Jimmi Simpson plays Los Angeles Police Detective Russell Poole, who investigates the case in 1997. USA has only released the pilot to the press, but it appears to have the makings of something truly addictive. There’s a deeply chilling scene between Biggie’s mother, Voletta Wallace (Aisha Hinds), and Simpson, and at a press tour panel on Tuesday, Simpson squeezed his eyes shut and gestured with his hands as he tried to convey the depth of his appreciation for Hinds’ performance.
All of that is wonderful, but what you really want to know is whether USA found actors who effectively captured Biggie and Tupac.
Yes. The answer is yes.
Marcc Rose, who played Tupac in Straight Outta Compton, is revisiting the role for Unsolved. The producers found a newcomer in rapper Wavyy Jonez to play Biggie, and it’s a relief to see that he’s not just doing an impression. Both men give their characters depth and an unexpected youthful playfulness under the direction of Anthony Hemingway. There’s one scene in particular where the two are playing under a sprinkler system in the California sun with real, but unloaded, guns, and Hemingway makes his point: They were just kids when they died in 1996 and 1997, barely adults on paper and even less so in spirit.
NBC has a new dramedy from creator Jenna Bans that follows three suburban Detroit moms who decide to hold up a grocery store after they find themselves and their families in dire financial straits.
Good Girls stars Christina Hendricks, Retta and Mae Whitman as moms Beth Boland, Ruby Hill and Annie Marks. Beth discovers that her used-car salesman husband, played by Matthew Lillard, has not only been cheating on her with his spokesmodel but has also mortgaged the house several times over and maxed out their credit cards trying to save his floundering business. Ruby’s daughter has a rare kidney disorder that requires either a transplant or a drug that costs $10,000 a month out of pocket. And Annie is a struggling mom to a genderqueer tween whose well-off father wants to sue her for full custody.
NBC is selling this show as a cross between Thelma and Louise and Breaking Bad, which I suppose makes sense. Mostly, it reminds me of Set It Off, the 1996 film starring Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett, Vivica A. Fox and Kimberly Elise as four desperate women who turn to robbing banks to get the cash they need.
Good Girls tries to capture all of the ways women are ignored, disrespected and underappreciated while also portraying the danger that women face — Annie has her own #MeToo moment — and managing to be darkly funny.
It’s Retta who brings a wonderful, tender ordinariness to the show. She and her husband, Stan (Reno Wilson), both work low-paying full-time jobs, neither of which affords them great health care for their daughter, played by Lidya Jewett. Retta spoke at length Tuesday about how she immediately responded to the script, precisely because she’s playing a person and not a best friend, or a meter maid, or a postal worker, or some other stereotype of what dark-skinned, plus-size black women are imagined to be.
Ruby and Stan have a loving, working-class marriage. Retta told me that Bans alerted her a few days ago that Ruby and Stan were going to have a fight because they have a sick kid and money’s tight. It makes sense.
Still, “I f—ing had a panic attack,” Retta said, “because I was like, ‘I love — don’t let them get into a fight!’ My thing is, because I love Ruby and Stan so much, and I love them together, and I love our kids — our kids are super f—ing cute. The kids are so cute, and Lidya is so damn smart. We just love being together. A lot of times, you know, you don’t necessarily loooove to perform with the kids. We love our kids. I’m having anxiety about the fight that we’re going to have to have.”