When rebooting a long-running TV show, there are certain rituals that have to be observed. Attempting to precisely re-create the original formula is tricky, and usually comes off as weak besides. But change too much, and suddenly you’re being accused of opportunistically slapping a beloved name onto a wholly unrelated property. For its part, Netflix has shown good faith by enlisting original creators Terry Dunn Meurer and John Cosgrove alongside Stranger Things’ Shawn Levy for its re-do of the true crime/paranormal documentary series Unsolved Mysteries. And while the changes Meurer and Cosgrove have made in updating the format for 2020 might not be to longtime fans’ tastes, they do bring the show in line with current documentary conventions—conventions, that, in their turn, will one day appear as dated as reenactment actors with crunchy, permed hair.
The biggest change from the original series is that the new Unsolved Mysteries comes without a host, or even voice-over narration. And it’s a bit of a letdown, given that Robert Stack (and, later on, co-host Virginia Madsen, and after that, Dennis Farina) played such an integral role in setting the show’s tone. Meurer says of the decision, “We wanted this [version of the show] to be in the documentary world, where the people whose mysteries these episodes involve are more present and more of the storytellers.” This means they use the now-standard documentary formula Netflix established with Making A Murderer and parodied with American Vandal, composed largely of handheld interview footage, dramatic zoom-ins on faded photographs, and evocative drone shots of relevant locations, all brushed with the ubiquitous overcast shade of gray that indicates that this is serious business. Also in the contemporary style, re-enactments are used sparingly, and feature no dialogue when they do appear—although, as the title card used to say, “Whenever possible, police officials and interview subjects have participated in recreating the events.”
Aside from a sharp reduction in trench-coat-clad gravitas, the main result of nixing a series host is that the show’s crowdsourced element is pushed to the background. Where once Stack had looked directly into the camera and announced in a deep, sonorous voice, “You may be able to help solve a mystery,” now there’s just a title card at the end of each episode urging viewers to go to the Unsolved Mysteries website if they have any information. And it’s a bit ironic, considering that online communities like Reddit teeming with volunteer amateur detectives have grown exponentially in the 10-year gap between seasons 14 and 15 of Unsolved Mysteries. But it’s not as ironic as the decision to ditch the title cards announcing that Unsolved Mysteries is not actually a news broadcast, when spending 10 minutes on Facebook makes clear that those sorts of disclaimers are needed now more than ever.
What does remain is the original theme music, as eerie as ever placed over After Effects-enhanced footage of locations where one might expect to find a dead body—think highway underpasses, landfills, creepy woods, and so on. The types of cases profiled on the new Unsolved Mysteries are also consistent with its ’80s and ’90s incarnation, albeit leaning more toward mysterious disappearances than paranormal phenomena. (There is one alien episode, profiling a close encounter of the fourth kind in small-town Massachusetts, in the six episodes available this week.) And the stories told by the victims’ loved ones are indeed compelling—particularly the season opener, about an aspiring screenwriter named Rey Rivera, whose disappearance only became more inexplicable after his body was found.
Some of the cases are less mysterious: Two of the missing-persons cases profiled on the show have obvious suspects, and only remain unsolved due to lack of evidence—or police conspiracy, in the case of a suspected hate crime in rural Kansas. In another episode, which expands the Unsolved Mysteries purview by exploring an international murder mystery, the culprit is known, but their whereabouts are not. These gaps are where Unsolved Mysteries’ stated purpose of giving the public a chance to share information comes in. If we take it at face value that Meurer, Cosgrove, Levy, and their crew are splashing these salacious stories all over television because they want to see them resolved, then Netflix, which reaches a staggering 182 million people worldwide, is the logical place to do so. And even if their motives are less than altruistic, well, the alien episodes are still fun.