TV News

Why Now Is the Perfect Time to Revive Unsolved Mysteries

Join me. Perhaps you maybe also want to reminisce about Unsolved Mysteries, the OG true crime series which is now on its way back thanks to a 12-episode order from Netflix. This new version will be brought to us by the original show’s producers 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 film noir-esque hosting, the production team’s capable documentary storytelling, and the unique deputization of the audience. Here was a series which turned 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 nearly dimly lit mausoleums or slowly traversing the steps in front of court buildings, always wearing a long coat and 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 detective. 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. Plus, 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. Have some class here, people. The man is dead.

(Awkward Pause.)

I’d still watch, though.

Sources: Mental Floss, Vanity Fair

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9 comments

  1. If they go through with it, this is one of those sequels/reboots that I will deliberately pretend does not exist. You know how there was technically a sequel (both a book and movie) to “Gone With the Wind,” but no one remembers it or acknowledges its existence because it was such a fundamentally flawed idea to begin with? That’s the case here. You can’t do Unsolved Mysteries without Robert Stack. You just can’t. I don’t even acknowledge the Dennis Farina one. The show ended when Stack died. Period. End of story.

    1. So, I have you down for “not gonna watch.”

      I don’t think trying to bring a new Unsolved Mysteries to Netflix is quite as fundamentally flawed as attempting a TV mini-series sequel to Gone With the Wind, one of the greatest films of all time, 55 years after its release and nearly 30-35 years after the deaths of its two main stars, but I take your point. It will be hard for this to work without Robert Stack, but given the playing field out there I don’t begrudge them wanting to try and update this format for the social media and interent age. If it doesn’t work, it can be ignored just as thoroughly as the Dennis Farina version was.

  2. Seriously, I can’t remember anybody except Robert Stack from hosting. I also can’t remember him ever acting except in “Airplane”.

    The old Unsolved Mysteries format would be welcome. These days, there’s so much emphasis in paranormal TV shows where the presenters are also investigators and have to do a night time examination at 2 am. And each time, they get easily fabricated results of EVPs and mysterious shadows. Yeah, magically they get activity the night they turn up.

    Did you ever watch “Paranormal Witness”? It was mediocre. I liked the idea a LOT. Reenacting a paranormal story. It had the feeling of watching a campfire story… but after awhile I was disappointed because 1) it was completely formulaic for every phenomena 2) almost every story was a poltergeist-style haunting (there were a couple of good exceptions) 3) that stupid jump scare at the end of every episode was as predictable as M Night having a twist ending.

    1. Outside of Airplane, Robert Stack was also in Caddyshack 2 (playing a similar character to Ted Knight from the first film) and voiced an oddly cavity-search obsessed FBI agent in Beavis & Butthead Do America. His IMDB page would obviously prove he did WAY more than just those projects, but those are the ones I remember him from, outside Unsolved Mysteries, of course.

      That format for the new Unsolved Mysteries will be slightly different. As I quoted in the piece, rather than feature multiple mystereis per episodes each of the 12 new installments on Netflix will instead focus on a single mystery. That does possibly leave open the possibility that their host will be an investigator in their own right ala the other paranormal TV show formats you referenced. However, I don’t really see that being the case, not with the original producers being involved and likely knowing how best to make this thing work.

      “Did you ever watch “Paranormal Witness”? It was mediocre.”

      That one is in my blind spot, but based on your description/assessment it sounds like it can stay there.

      Fun fact from the Mental Floss listicle I linked to: The Unsolved Mysteries paranormal/ghost/UFO episodes came about because Fox forced them to do a special Halloween episode during the first season to compete with a buzzy new program which was promising to uncover the true identity of Jack the Ripper. The producers were in an awkward position, though, because THEY were the ones making that Jack the Ripper special. Unsolved Mysteries wasn’t their only gig. Fox was thus forcing them to compete with themslves, and they had no choice but to comply.

      It worked: the Halloween episodes clobbered the Jack the Ripper special. After that, special scary episodes became a recurring thing for Unsolved Mysteries, much to Stack’s chagrin. He hated almost all of them and thought they were complete hokum, but every now and again there’d be one ghost story or whatever that even Stack would concede seemed surprisingly credible.

      1. Holy crap! I never realized he played Ultra Magnus in Transformers 1986. I saw that at the cinema three times because we kept winning free tickets from a Pizza Hut promotion.

        I am fascinated by the paranormal and UFOlogy. I also have some scepticism. Too often it seems like a p***ing contest to see who can have the most outlandish claim yet still be believed.

      2. “Holy crap! I never realized he played Ultra Magnus in Transformers 1986. I saw that at the cinema three times because we kept winning free tickets from a Pizza Hut promotion.”

        First of all, seriously belated congratulations on winning what sounds like a wicked sweet Pizza Hut promotion. Secondly, Stack voiced Ultra Magnus? Really? Oh, how did I not know that? Do he (Magnus) and Peter Cullen (Optimus Prime) ever talk to each other? Because if not, that’s a seriously missed opportunity for voice acting gold.

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