In 1987, host Robert Stack informed and frightened a generation as host of the series “Unsolved Mysteries.” Using both re-enactments with actors (including a pre-fame Matthew McConaughey) and Stack’s sonorous voice, viewers were told two stories a week, ranging from murders and abductions, to the reunification of families, to supernatural examinations of haunted houses and ghosts.
Every week I watched, I’d be frightened — and inspired that I, too, could help solve a mystery. The series changed networks and timeslots before being canceled in 2002; Robert Stack passed away in 2003. A short-lived reboot hosted by Dennis Farina ran from 2008 to 2010. The afterlife has been kind to the original show; there was a syndicated run Lifetime; it is available on PlutoTV; updated episodes are streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
So when Netflix announced another reboot, it came with a lot of baggage already attached. This new version of “Unsolved Mysteries” certainly tries to pay tribute to the original series, starting with a shadow of Stack accompanying the opening credits. But there’s something off about this one, akin to when you go to visit your favorite restaurant now under new management. The food and decor is the same, but the fundamental reason for its existence — the memories — have been washed away.
The 12-episode series has each 45-50 minute episode focus on one individual mystery. Almost immediately, this is frustrating because numerous shows, like “Forensic Files” and this new series’ closest competitor, “Dateline,” already do this. This isn’t to say the stories aren’t interesting; they are just as compelling as the original series, particularly the story of missing man/alleged murderer Xavier DuPont de Ligonnes or the disappearance of Liehnia Chapin. But of the six episodes provided for review, all but one focus on a missing or murdered person, the lone hold-out being an examination of a series of UFO sightings in the Berkshires in 1969. This can easily cause burnout to set in, with what feels like the same story being told in slightly different ways.
What made “Unsolved” so unique from “America’s Most Wanted” or “Dateline” was that everything unexplained was up for grabs. Elongating episodes only works if there is a story worth fitting into nearly an hour, and of course murder and missing persons cases often can. But it will be hard to see the series tackle something like lost loves to fit in an hour. Conversely, some cases suffer from filler, with the camera capturing moody shots of centipedes walking through a wooded floor or, in the pilot episode focused on the death of Rey Rivera, taking two minutes to detail the unrelated significance of the location he died in. There’s a greater sense of tightness and cohesion — as well as being able to pack in more stories — with a shorter runtime.
Courtesy of Netflix
The lack of a host also leads to a feeling of repetition. Stack and Farina’s narration not only kept things moving, but were able to fill in blanks that didn’t need to be prodded from the subjects. Here, the emphasis is on having the family members lay out the story in its entirety, and what isn’t verbally explicated is presented in on-screen timelines. This become laughable at times because a subject will say a person has been missing X amount of days, only for the timeline to spell out that same number of days. (The use of a host also negates the need for excess graphics that aren’t accessible to blind viewers.)
It leaves “Unsolved Mysteries” feeling generic, as if it’s intentionally skewing to appease fans of “Tiger King” or any number of the streaming giant’s buzzy documentary series. Family members walk around, look at photos of loved ones, and talk directly to the camera recounting every single thing about the lives of those they’ve lost. The stories grip you, as any good crime story does, but there’s nothing about the series, as a whole, that feels like something you need to watch immediately. The goal is to attract fans of the original IP and, sadly, the series doesn’t do enough. Maybe the question is, is there a world where “Unsolved Mysteries” is relevant in a world where true crime is so all-encompassing?
I’m interested to see the remaining half of the season, as maybe once the series settles into a groove it’ll at least mix up the mysteries waiting to be solved. I’d be even more happy to see how subsequent seasons deal with updates — one of the things that keeps the “Unsolved Mysteries” website and Wikipedia pages so popular — even without the series airing. The fact that the show is back is great, but it needs to do something to situate itself as “Unsolved Mysteries” and not another quasi-HBO documentary series. Change can be good, but sometimes you shouldn’t mess with what has already worked.
“Unsolved Mysteries” premieres July 1 on Netflix.