Generations of true-crime fans might cite their obsession’s origins as Unsolved Mysteries. The American documentary series highlighted unsolved cases, curious mysteries, and more on weekly installments that proved must-see TV for decades. Part of the allure was host Robert Stack, who presided over everything from murder investigations to alleged miracles and ghost stories with the same smoky sense of fascination edged with foreboding. The series not only made investigations into crime and the supernatural into nail-biting television but also empowered viewers to crack the case. At the end of each episode, contact information would be offered with Stack’s thrilling temptation of heroism, “Maybe you can help solve a mystery”
33 years since its original debut and ten since its last cancellation, Unsolved Mysteries is back. Stranger Things executive producer Shawn Levy has teamed with Netflix to deliver a 15th season to the long-beloved series. But this isn’t the Unsolved Mysteries many grew up with. Here are four key differences.
In the original series, Robert Stack guided audiences through a maze of mysteries each week. The story of a harrowing kidnapping might lead into an exploration of a mythical creature, then to a heartwarming tale of long lost relatives having been found. The Netflix series has dumped the anthology structure in favor of focusing on one story each episode. This means the 6-episode season offers only 6 stories. However, each is told over 40 or so minutes, allowing a deeper dive into the details than the old format did.
Robert Stack left huge shoes to fill. Dennis Farina tried during the 2008 reboot of the series, but fans tend to agree he didn’t quite stack up. An Academy Award-winning actor, Stack carried an effortless gravitas that spoke to the seriousness of the crimes to be explored, and with a confidence that he would see us through them. His tone was strong but hushed, as if he were a sage sitting before a campfire, telling us scary stories to entertain but also warn us of the dangers that lurk in the dark.
When the Netflix series was announced, many wondered who could possibly be a 2020 replacement that’d do justice to Stack’s legacy. Apparently, the producers couldn’t think of anyone. This new Unsolved Mysteries has no host and no narrator. Without the vignettes, perhaps producers felt a host was unnecessary. Instead, of narration smoothing over clunky interviews or condensing details into a case to their essentials, the producers lean hard on the talking head interviews. This puts the focus on the voices of the victims, witnesses, survivors, and suspects who chose to speak with the series. Unseen and unheard are the producers who probe their memories and pain to spill out stories that are mysterious and tragic.
Stack’s series delved into a lot of dark cases, including the Golden State Killer and the Atlanta Olympics bomber. However, the vignette structure—along with commercial breaks—allowed audiences a reprieve from the bleakness of such stories. Concentrating solely on one story, the new Unsolved Mysteries doesn’t have such avenues for relief. Instead, it’s a commercial-free trudge through grim tales of unexplained deaths, missing persons, murder, and UFO sightings that are told with a staunch sternness. Thus, Unsolved Mysteries plays like any number of cold case series, chilly with an edge of exploitation.
At first, it seems this focused format will allow the victims and their families a suitable spotlight to fight once more for justice. However, without the human touch of a narrator or a personality on-camera speaking to these interview subjects, Unsolved Mysteries has a coldness to its presumed empathy. Sure, screentime is dedicated to painting a portrait of the dead or missing beyond their tragic ends. However, the series then digs into the ghoulish details, pushing to places that have subjects breaking down or apologizing for their tears. Sometimes, the unseen filmmakers edge into areas that are nakedly disturbing, like when a widower—who is also a suspect in his wife’s demise—casually reveals how he cuddles up in his bed each night with the box containing her ashes. Without a host, such sequences lack empathy or introspection and veer into uneasy gawking at tragedy and horror.
Obviously, right? Still, as someone who has taken to binging old episodes of Unsolved Mysteries (now on Prime Video), I felt myself pining for Stack’s reassuring and crisp note “Update.” Years after the shows first ran, a thoughtful team went back through and created brief text card updates of arrests, convictions, and resolutions. Every time one hits during a rerun rewatch, I feel a rush of relief at this win for mankind and justice. But there are not yet such joys to be found in Netflix’s version.
In “House of Terror,” the new Unsolved Mysteries walks audiences through a heinous family slaughter. There’s little mystery to who committed this grotesque series of murders; what’s unknown is where he went after. As terrible details of the family’s last night were unfurled, I found myself tensing with hope. “Update, say update,” my brain throbbed, only to remember this freshly debuted episode can’t offer such catharsis. In the end, they won’t even give us Stack’s reassuring paternal voice asking for your help solving a mystery. There’ll only be a title card with contact info.
The only things that tie the seminal Robert Stack series that launched untold imitators and this new incarnation is its name and theme song. (Though a new version, Netflix’s theme contains enough of Michael Boyd and Gary Remal Malkin’s classic song that it gave me goosebumps as its whiny strings hit.) Beyond these details, Unsolved Mysteries is a very different show, and not in a good way.
Perhaps the macabre showmanship of the original series could come off crass or insensitive today. That might explain why producers veered so far from its original format. However, what they’ve chosen to do instead is bizarrely lifeless. Netflix has been prolific in creating good, thoughtful, and gripping true-crime documentaries. Yet here, handed a popular brand that proved a forefather of the genre, they fumbled it hard. This incarnation lacks the curiosity and humanity that was exemplified in Stack’s narration. There’s little mystery teased in this new season. Instead, one theory after another is laid out with lackluster production and very little questioning. This doesn’t create a dynamic portrait of the persons and plights within but instead makes their powerful stories feel shockingly flat.
Unsolved Mysteries Season 15 is now on Netflix.
Header Image Source: Netflix