The best thing about the reboot of Unsolved Mysteries, which debuted on Netflix yesterday, is the updated version of the iconic theme song. As the title appears on the screen, you can even see a shadowy outline of the late, great Robert Stack, who hosted the original program for several seasons on NBC.
After that, it’s basically just another crime documentary. A well-made crime documentary, but it’s just not the same as the series that captivated us during the eighties. Admittedly it’s hard to imagine a suitable replacement for Stack, but a host and narrator would make the stories move faster. (Dennis Farina, who hosted a short-lived revival, is sadly also no longer with us.)
The biggest problem is that each episode deals with only one case at a time. The disappearance and questionable “suicide” of Baltimore resident Rey Rivera, covered in episode one, is undeniably interesting. (Try watching it and tell me you don’t think his best friend/business partner has something to hide.)
But the original series treated us to three or four cases – usually an unsolved murder, a disappearance, and for dessert, an “unexplained” segment about UFOs or hauntings – per hour. If one story didn’t grab you, at least there was a good chance something more interesting was on its way. Considering how TV has ruined our attention spans just like it ruined our ability to…um, uh, oh well, it’s a bit surprising they didn’t stick to the old formula, with more mysteries packed into the show’s running time.
This IndieWire review gets it pretty much exactly right:
…This new version of “Unsolved Mysteries” certainly tries to pay tribute to the original series, starting with a shadow of Stack accompanying the opening credits. But there’s something off about this one, akin to when you go to visit your favorite restaurant now under new management. The food and decor is the same, but the fundamental reason for its existence — the memories — have been washed away.
The 12-episode series has each 45-50 minute episode focus on one individual mystery. Almost immediately, this is frustrating because numerous shows, like “Forensic Files” and this new series’ closest competitor, “Dateline,” already do this. This isn’t to say the stories aren’t interesting; they are just as compelling as the original series, particularly the story of missing man/alleged murderer Xavier DuPont de Ligonnes or the disappearance of Liehnia Chapin. But of the six episodes provided for review, all but one focus on a missing or murdered person, the lone hold-out being an examination of a series of UFO sightings in the Berkshires in 1969. This can easily cause burnout to set in, with what feels like the same story being told in slightly different ways.
What made “Unsolved” so unique from “America’s Most Wanted” or “Dateline” was that everything unexplained was up for grabs. Elongating episodes only works if there is a story worth fitting into nearly an hour, and of course murder and missing persons cases often can. But it will be hard to see the series tackle something like lost loves to fit in an hour. Conversely, some cases suffer from filler, with the camera capturing moody shots of centipedes walking through a wooded floor or, in the pilot episode focused on the death of Rey Rivera, taking two minutes to detail the unrelated significance of the location he died in. There’s a greater sense of tightness and cohesion — as well as being able to pack in more stories — with a shorter runtime.
The lack of a host also leads to a feeling of repetition. Stack and Farina’s narration not only kept things moving, but were able to fill in blanks that didn’t need to be prodded from the subjects. Here, the emphasis is on having the family members lay out the story in its entirety, and what isn’t verbally explicated is presented in on-screen timelines. This become laughable at times because a subject will say a person has been missing X amount of days, only for the timeline to spell out that same number of days. (The use of a host also negates the need for excess graphics that aren’t accessible to blind viewers.)
I’m still glad they brought it back, and I will certainly check out all six episodes. But if there’s a season two, here’s hoping the producers (including Stranger Things‘ Shawn Levy) hear out fans of the original to go back to what worked so well.