Join me. Perhaps you may be also want to reminisce about Unsolved Mysteries, especially now that it’s coming back as a 12-part series on Netflix and run by the original show’s people as well as a Stranger Things producer.
Except we’ve been here before. Unsolved Mysteries – haunter of dreams, champion of poorly acted recreations, solver of, um, mysteries – has been revived multiple times before. I know it through a version hosted by a man, Robert Stack, who is now long since dead; you might know it through a follow-up version hosted by a different man, Dennis Farina, who is also now long since dead. Although, who are we kidding? Based on the ratings and recent social media reaction, if you know Unsolved Mysteries at all it’s because you watched this version:
No shame if that theme music used to make you want to hide behind the couch. The Doctor Who theme music doesn’t have the exclusive on that most primal of child reactions. But a creepy theme song does not a good show make. No, what lifted Unsolved Mysteries to an original decade+ run of episodes was the combination of Robert Stack’s perfectly blunt hosting, the production team’s capable documentary storytelling, and the unique deputization of the audience, turning each viewer into an amateur detective who just might help solve a murder, reunite a family, or track down some petty criminals.
OK. The theme song had a LOT to do with it.
Sidenote: I grew up genuinely believing Robert Stack spent most of his time hanging out in dimly lit mausoleums or slowly traversing the steps in front of court buildings, always wearing a long coat and always looking grimly serious. I knew he’d been an actor in the past in movies like Airplane, but as far as I was concerned he’d found a second career as a no-nonsense film noir detective now. Or maybe he’d always been that and acting was just like a side gig. I don’t know. I hadn’t really figured that part out.
The fact, however, that so much of my memory of Unsolved Mysteries is tied to Robert Stack does beg the question: can this new version on Netflix possibly be the same without him?
Furthermore, as Vanity Fair argued, the true-crime docuseries playing field is a heck of a lot different than it was back in the day:
When the series returns it will face more competition than it ever did before—including several series that live on Netflix itself. There are not only old licensed series like Forensic Files to contend with, but also new docuseries, including Making a Murderer and last year’s Wild Wild Country, as well as docudramas like Errol Morris’s mind-bending Wormwood (which also aired on Netflix). And that’s not even mentioning other investigative projects like BuzzFeed Unsolved, which has gained a following all its own.
But the Unsolved Mysteries name still has pull and the original producers have never really let the franchise die. As recently as 2017, there was an Unsolved Mysteries YouTube channel where fans could submit their own mysteries to be considered for a future version of the series, and the old tip line is still active on the Unsolved Mysteries website.
This new Netflix iteration of the show will be slightly different than before and not just because Stack left this Earth back in 2003. Again, Vanity Fair:
The new season will feature 12 installments, each following the old show’s style: re-enactments presented in a documentary format, focusing on subjects such as missing persons and apparent paranormal phenomena. In this version, however, each episode will focus on one mystery. (The original broadcast series included multiple cases in each episode.)
With true-crime obsession showing no sign of plateauing and the internet far more capable of turning everyone into amateur detectives than an old telephone tip line ever could, maybe the time really is right for Unsolved Mysteries. We used to watch the show because it slightly scared us while also empowering us to help enact change in the world. That seems like a very “now” kind of thing to bring back. The old version solved thousands of mysteries, according to this excellent Mental Floss listicle about the show’s history. Well, let’s solve 12 more when this new version hits Netflix.
If they have a hologram of Robert Stack host, though, that will be too far. Obviously.