Netflix’s Unsolved Mysteries Is Both a Polished Update and Filled With Old-School Weirdness

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Image: Netflix

True crime is riding a huge wave of popularity, so the timing couldn’t be better for an Unsolved Mysteries comeback. Netflix’s revival brings the 1990s staple into the current moment with a more refined production style, while also keeping things oddball enough to please longstanding fans.

The six new episodes (another six are due in the future) skew heavily toward cold-case murders — the original series, of course, had a wider focus that included lost loves, ghosts and other supernatural topics, mysterious disappearances, and so on — though there is one UFO encounter. Of the five murder cases that get the spotlight, there are two whodunnits (“Mystery on the Rooftop,” “No Ride Home”), two “we have a pretty good idea whodunnit, but we need more evidence” stories (“13 Minutes,” “Missing Witness”), and one “we know whodunnit, but he’s MIA” tale (“House of Horrors”).

The Netflix format allows each case to have its own 45-50 minute instalment, unlike the original series, which usually crammed four or more shorter segments into a single episode. The reenactments, long a series staple, are tastefully crafted and used to help fill in visual gaps as the interviewees (friends and families of the victims, journalists, bystanders, the occasional law enforcement type) piece together what happened as best they can. Overall, the style of each segment echoes other popular Netflix true-crime series (Making a Murderer, The Keepers, Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez, even Tiger King), shot more like a documentary film than a tabloid-style TV show.

Since it’s the next obvious question: nope, there’s no new Unsolved Mysteries host. The omission is so notable that executive producers Terry Dunn Meurer and John Cosgrove (the folks behind Cosgrove/Meurer Productions, which created the original version of the series; they co-produced this new version with Shawn Levy’s 21 Laps Entertainment, creators of Stranger Things) addressed it in a statement shared by Netflix: “We know our loyal audience will miss host Robert Stack (1919-2003) as much as we do, but we hope mystery lovers old and new will embrace this next chapter, knowing that no one could fill Bob’s shoes.”

That’s definitely true, and there’s a nice homage to Stack included in the new series’ opening credits. (The iconic theme song remains; however, it’s been tweaked a bit to sound more subtly ominous.) But the lack of host segments and commercial breaks is actually a significant advantage since it allows each episode to flow at its own pace. We really get to know the grieving people left in the wake of each crime, which makes each case more involving and raises the stakes for each story. The framing is so sympathetic you can imagine it might inspire a reluctant someone with long-hidden evidence to finally speak up via the show’s tips-submission page.

While all of the cases are baffling and shocking, “Mystery on the Rooftop,” about a Baltimore man who died in a bizarre multi-story plunge, is a standout, as is “House of Terror,” about an aristocratic father in France who apparently slaughtered his entire family and then vanished into thin air. But the most mystifying entry is, hands down, “Berkshires UFO.”

At just 39 minutes, it’s the shortest episode in this half-season — and considering how vastly different it feels from the other five, its inclusion seems to be a conspicuous effort to remind viewers of Unsolved Mysteries’ enduring fondness for the paranormal. Murders with exceptionally strange details were always a major part of the series, but Unsolved Mysteries also never held back from applying its “you be the detective” formula to more boundary-pushing stories. Like, say, tales of spontaneous human combustion, cursed objects, psychic powers, and UFOs.

“Berkshires UFO” takes us back to September 1, 1969, when “an unexplained phenomenon” transpired in western Massachusetts. Eyewitnesses, some of whom were young children at the time, recall beams of light from above and giant objects floating in the sky, and a few even remember having actual alien encounters. No official documentation of the event exists; there’re no photos, no police logs that mention it, and no contemporaneous newspaper articles or radio recordings. So the only evidence this episode can present are the verbal accounts of the people who were there, all of whom are certain they saw something that night — despite the fact that they’ve been met with scepticism or even ridicule when they tried to speak about it.

Ultimately, “Berkshires UFO” is less about an actual UFO encounter and more about the shared belief in a UFO encounter that may or may not have actually happened; the only proof it contains is the fact that Unsolved Mysteries is still interested in probing the deepest reaches of the unknown, including but not limited to the peculiar quirks of the human memory. There are six more episodes of Netflix’s Unsolved Mysteries due at a later date, promising more unusual crimes to enthrall viewers new and old. Hopefully, we’ll also get some juicy updates — another Unsolved Mysteries signature hallmark — on these first six cases, too.