Stars: Skip Howland, Pistol Black, Jane Green
When Unsolved Mysteries aired primarily on NBC from the late ’80s into the ’90s, it scratched a certain cold case itch that wasn’t being fully scratched in the marketplace. Episodes tracked the inexplicable and the unresolved with a heavy reliance on re-enactments, all held together by the wooden-yet-nosy sternness of host Robert Stack.
More than 30 years later, the format hasn’t just been duplicated elsewhere; it has split off into a legion of variations that dominate TV. There are whole networks dedicated to true crime TV, a genre of which Unsolved Mysteries was an obvious progenitor.
If you like your unsolved mysteries with a little more reportorial rigor — and Unsolved Mysteries always insisted it was not a news program — Dateline and 20/20 have you covered. If you like your unsolved mysteries with a little more depth, you know what’s a great episode of Unsolved Mysteries? The Staircase. Or The Jinx. You know what’s also a wildly popular, if not especially great, episode of Unsolved Mysteries? Tiger King.
That’s why the biggest unsolved mystery behind Netflix’s reboot of Unsolved Mysteries is, “Why bother?” This new incarnation has almost none of what made the original memorable, substituting generic cases and limited style in stories (episodes run less than an hour) that are too dull for a miniseries and too meekly investigated for a newsmagazine.
With Stranger Things executive producer Shawn Levy as the reboot’s biggest attached name, this Unsolved Mysteries would probably be more appropriately titled Insufficiently Strange Things.
Through the six episodes sent to critics (the full batch premiering on Netflix this week), the Netflix take on Unsolved Mysteries focuses on the same sorts of cases as the original.
There’s a woman who’s sure the police miscategorized her husband’s death as suicide and has a half-baked theory on why he might have been killed. There’s another woman who was found dead and her son, with only half-baked evidence, is sure that his stepfather was involved, or at least that’s what I vaguely remember less than a day after watching.
There’s the case of the shocking death of a prominent French family that isn’t “unsolved” so much as “unclosed” because the patriarch who probably committed the crime has gone missing himself. And there’s a twisty Ozark-set story of a young woman who may or may not have been killed because she was about to testify that her mother killed her stepfather, or something like that.
Then, for good measure, there’s 39 minutes of people remembering their encounter with aliens in the Berkshires 50 years ago. Yes, aliens. That was always part of the Unsolved Mysteries charm: that they could go from very serious cold cases to supernatural nonsense in the blink of an eye and everything seemed to fit together tonally and structurally. Here, that’s not the case.
Of the six episodes, the only one I’d say was genuinely entertaining was the French episode, titled “House of Terror,” and that’s as much because the footage from Nantes is quite lovely. Unfortunately, there’s no part of this installment that feels sufficiently researched, as a simple googling of “Dupont de Ligonnès Murders” proves conclusively.
Unlike every other episode, this is one that felt like it could be fodder for a miniseries treatment and, of course, in France it has been. It’s flimsy and unenlightening on any deeper level, but at least it’s a good story.
It invariably feels mean to criticize installments here as “uninteresting,” because they all still feature loved ones wrecked by these life-changing tragedies. But two or three of the mysteries barely feel justified in taking up 10 minutes of screen time, and the ones that are more engaging feel like they’ve had their stories badly told.
In that category, I point to the fourth episode about a murder in Kansas that everybody is convinced was a hate crime. It’s a massive accusation to make if you don’t have any evidence — and this Unsolved Mysteries continues the original’s principle of not being “investigative” or “journalistic”.
Man, it’s not journalistic. There’s almost no inquisitiveness or curiosity to the storytelling at all, just emotionally traumatized people speculating wildly without any concurrent efforts to corroborate or substantiate. And if your storytelling lacks curiosity, it’s hard to imagine viewers having the curiosity to respond to the limp “If you have additional information…” call to action that closes each episode.
The original series was driven heavily by re-enactments and, yes, sometimes they were cheesy as heck, but they were a way of illustrating claims or possibilities. In the new version, the re-enactments have been limited to more traditional documentary-style filler, bridging scenes or covering for a lack of news footage.
They don’t illuminate anything. And don’t get me wrong, a series in 2020 doing the sort of re-enactments Unsolved Mysteries was doing in 1990 would absolutely look silly. But if you remove those re-enactments and don’t replace them with re-enactments presented in an updated style — gimme Errol Morris’ Unsolved Mysteries — or any compensating substance or rigor, the result is fairly generic, reasonably pointless and definitely has no connection to the Unsolved Mysteries brand.
Plus, then you decide to go host-less? Come on! Robert Stack is the first, second and third thing that I think of when I think of Unsolved Mysteries. I’m not sure what Stack gave to the original series was “gravitas,” exactly, but the Untouchables star gave it a certain synthetic credibility, walking through fake fog in a real trench coat, that was perfect for what Unsolved Mysteries wanted to accomplish.
The host cements a tone and lets viewers know if they’re supposed to approach what follows as grounded drama, high melodrama, utterly ridiculous or camp. Normally I don’t require hand-holding, but with documentary storytelling this mediocre, an authoritative host might have compensated for a total lack of tone.