“Unsolved Mysteries” in name only

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.

Unsolved Nova Scotia: Kevin Martin

Forever young.

Imagine losing your young son in a devastating fire. And then your other son disappearing, seemingly without a trace, until his body is found in a shallow grave.

And you think you know who took the life of your little boy, but no one has ever been brought to justice.

That’s the unspeakable horror that befell Bonnie Thomas, now a resident of Prince Edward Island, when she lived in Pictou County. This is one of the most heartbreaking mysteries I’ve ever heard about:

Kevin was 13 the day in May he had run away from his house on MacKay Street in Stellarton. It wasn’t the first time he had left home without permission and his family had no reason to believe it would be his last. According to retired Stellarton police officer Hugh Muir, who became involved in the case early, Martin had fallen in with a bad crowd about six months to a year before this day. Muir was familiar with Kevin because he had gone to school with Muir’s older boys, and remembers him as a nice, polite kid.

Thomas recalls how Kevin had been bullied at school and craved acceptance. He wanted to be part of the cool kids and so when they skipped school, he did too.

“He was a great kid. He just got in with the wrong group of kids,” Thomas said. “He was a follower.”

A few years earlier Kevin had also lost his older brother Olin in a house fire. They had only been 10-months apart in age and shared a room. The fire was determined to be have been caused accidentally, but had a lasting effect on Kevin.

“I don’t think Kevin ever got over losing Olin,” says their mother.

[…]

Then came a degree of closure they had hoped not to find. Commercial loggers working in the Burnside area of Colchester County – near Upper Stewiacke – discovered Kevin’s remains buried in a shallow grave. While police have never released how they believe the teen died, physical evidence found at the scene was enough to determine his death was a homicide. They believe he was killed shortly after he disappeared in 1994.

While he’s no longer involved in the investigation, Muir personally thinks there had to be more than one person involved, particularly to dispose of the body. He believes the people responsible also likely had a familiarity with the area where Kevin’s body was found. He is sure there are people still alive with information that could solve the case and prays they think of a 13-year-old being brutally murdered and of a family still suffering without answers.

“He would have been possibly married and a father of his own now,” Muir said.

Thomas is confident she knows who the guilty people are. Based on information she said someone gave her and that was passed on to police, she believes there were three people directly involved. 

The News spoke with that person who gave Thomas and police the tip. Her first name is Debbie, but she requested her last name not be used. Debbie says her information came from a relative who says she knows the people responsible, where it happened and how. Debbie said she’s shared what she knows with police, but to date no arrests have been made.

Nova Scotia Crime Stoppers has posted a reward of up to $150,000.00 for information that leads to the killer’s arrest and conviction. In an era where many long-dormant cold cases are finally being solved, thanks to technological advances and determined investigators, hopefully justice for Kevin will be done.