‘Unsolved Mysteries’ freaked out ’90s kids. Now it’s back to scare a new generation
If you were a child in the ’80s or ‘90s — and maybe even if you were an adult — you probably lost a few nights’ sleep to “Unsolved Mysteries.”
Hosted by the leathery-voiced Robert Stack and featuring one of the eeriest theme songs in TV history, the long-running reality show scared the bejesus out of a generation with stories about brutal murders and baffling disappearances, yeti sightings and alien abductions, medical mysteries and long-lost loves.
Airing for nine seasons on NBC and later moving to CBS and Lifetime, the program was both well ahead of its time — inviting audiences to “help solve a mystery” as they would later via countless Reddit discussions and hit podcasts — and firmly of it — with dated reenactments and low-fi special effects. Sometimes corny, often terrifying, “Unsolved Mysteries” left a mark on pop culture.
Now, like so many other nostalgia-steeped properties from the 1990s, it’s being revived for the streaming era. Six new episodes of “Unsolved Mysteries” premiered Wednesday on Netflix, and another batch is slated for later this year.
The spooky theme song is back in a new arrangement, and the franchise has likewise been retooled to suit contemporary tastes: there’s no host, no narration and no more literal reenactments. Each episode focuses on a single subject, allowing for a greater level of detail and nuance. Stylistically, the reboot — executive produced by Shawn Levy — shares as much DNA with “The Jinx” or “Making a Murderer” as the original “Unsolved Mysteries.”
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“I have a sense of how we might captivate the young viewer of today, and that’s where our ambitions lie for this show: to satisfy fans of the original and to indoctrinate people who come to this with no history,” says Levy, likening it to his Netflix hit, “Stranger Things,” in its cross-generational appeal.
Executive producer Terry Meurer says she and fellow co-creator John Cosgrove have wanted to bring “Unsolved Mysteries” back ever since they stopped producing new material in the early 2000s. And she says that right now, at a moment when the internet has empowered amateur sleuths, is the ideal time for it.
“The fervent armchair detectives really like to dig into the details of these cases, and I think after they watch each episode they’ll go to Google. People are sophisticated, they’re hungry for for more information and they want longer-form stories.”
She and Cosgrove were reality TV pioneers, producing documentaries about subjects such as gun violence and missing children for HBO and NBC. “Unsolved Mysteries” began airing in 1987 as a series of specials, hosted by Raymond Burr, Karl Malden and then Stack, which NBC used to plug holes in its schedule.
Meurer had initially worried that audiences would be frustrated by so many incomplete stories. “Then we started to solve cases and we realized we can create endings for these cases. It was very exciting that we were solving cases at the rate that we were. That’s one of the reasons that the audience tuned in: Oh, I wonder wonder what happened in that case?”
Eventually the show got a regular time slot, and Stack became the permanent host. After playing crime fighter Eliot Ness in “The Untouchables,” Stack “gave the series that gravitas,” Meurer says. Filmed in shadowy alleys and abandoned buildings and clad in a trench coat, the actor introduced and narrated each story, somehow making even the most benign details seem ominous.
Meurer and Cosgrove always set out to cover a wide array of stories. “We’ve always thought of it as a mystery series rather than a true-crime series,” she says. “The beauty of the franchise is that there’s something for everyone. If you aren’t interested in the missing-person case, you sit through 10 minutes and then you get to the UFO.”
But there also was an emphasis on solvable crimes, she says. And the show helped resolve dozens of cases over the years, beginning with the arrest of Robert Weeks, a fugitive in Arizona whose story was featured in the second episode.
Cosgrove/Meurer Productions cranked out 22 or more episodes a year, each of which featured four or five cases, for roughly 100 mysteries a year. Then there were the updates, which “were always a scramble,” Meurer says. “Sometimes an arrest would be made right away and our goal was always to get to the update information to the viewers as quickly as possible.”
Unusual for the era, “Unsolved Mysteries” was shot nearly entirely on location. Crews would travel across the country to interview witnesses and survivors, then film re-creations using local performers.
“Oftentimes we were in small towns and we’d go to local theaters to try to find talent to be in the reenactments. That’s why if you watch the old episodes, some of reenactments are stronger than others,” Meurer says. The reenactments were not always high art, but they did help launch the career of at least one Oscar winner: In one of his first onscreen roles, Matthew McConaughey played a Texas man shot to death in front of his mother.
For the first half of its run on NBC, “Unsolved Mysteries” ranked in the top 20 shows on television. Ratings softened, and it was canceled, then revived by CBS, only to be canceled again. Lifetime aired original episodes freshened up with new segments, and a repackaged version of the show, hosted by Dennis Farina, also lasted several years on Spike. Eventually, “We decided the brand needed to take a break,” says Meurer, whose company continued to maintain a database of thousands of cases and update a dozen or more stories a year.
“I just remember the feeling that the show inspired, which was: creeped out, can’t look away,” recalls Levy, who discovered the show as a college student. “It was always that combination of the mystery and the humanity that hooked me in and that was the combination above all that I wanted to protect in these new episodes.”
But bringing the show to viewers accustomed to cinematic, long-form documentary storytelling — especially on Netflix — meant major updates to the format.
For starters, each episode of the revival goes in-depth on just a single case. “When we were doing the original episodes, it was challenging to take a very multidimensional mystery with lots of twists and turns and try and put it into 12 or 15 minutes. So we like the idea of being able to do a deeper dive into these episodes,” Meurer says.
The creative team ultimately decided to go without a host or narrator, partially an acknowledgment that it would be impossible to replace Stack, who died in 2003. “It is very hard to fill Robert Stack’s shoes,” Meurer says. “But we also wanted to give [our subjects] more of a chance to tell their own stories and to have them be the larger characters in the episodes.”
The reenactments are still here, but they are now visceral, impressionistic and less literal, says Marcus A. Clarke, who directed three of the six episodes. In the original series, a witness might recall walking up and knocking on a door, and the reenactment would show just that. Now, Clarke says, “You see the feet walking up to the door, and the crack under the door and a little dust falls down. It forces the viewers to think about what’s actually happening and how the images they’re seeing relate to the story, versus spoon-feeding them the same thing they’re hearing. We don’t do ‘see-say.’”
Aesthetically, the revival may be quite different from the original, but viewers are likely to feel just as unsettled as they did back in Stack’s day. Levy chalks that up to what he describes as Meurer’s finely calibrated “creepometer.” “Her instincts for when to dial up the creepy factor” are excellent, he says.
The show still explores mysteries beyond murders and disappearances — yes, there’s a UFO episode — but some of the show’s original categories no longer make sense in the digital era. (These days, people looking for long-lost relatives or loved ones can turn to Facebook or ancestry.com.)
Producers also made a concerted effort to find cases that would appeal to — and could potentially be solved by — Netflix’s global audience.
“It is a more diverse set of stories, geographically, racially and above all tonally,” says Levy.
“House of Terror” tells the story of Xavier Dupont de Ligonnès, a French man from an aristocratic family who disappeared after his wife and four children were murdered. “Mystery on the Rooftop” examines the suspicious case of Rey Rivera, who either jumped —or was pushed — to his death from the roof of a historic Baltimore hotel.
The timely episode “No Ride Home” delves into a possible hate crime involving Alonzo Brooks, a Black man who vanished from a party in rural Kansas in 2004. His body was found on the property — which police had searched — a month later. The FBI recently reopened the case, offering a $100,000 reward for information.
Like many others, Clarke, who spent several tense weeks on location in Kansas filming the episode, said he believes race was a factor in Brooks’ death. “He is just one story of many African Americans who’ve been caught up in systematic racism,” he says.
The creative team behind the revival is confident the international reach of Netflix — 183 million subscribers and counting — and the ease of sharing information in the age of social media will bring resolution to some of these cases.
“I want this show to be entertaining,” says Levy, “but all the viewers in the world wouldn’t be as gratifying as one solved mystery.”
When: Any time, starting Wednesday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
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