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Unsolved Mysteries Is a Story of American Television’s Evolution

Once upon a time, you could hunt aliens and murderers in the same show.

Via Netflix
A witness to a UFO sighting in the Berkshires, featured in “Unsolved Mysteries”

“What you are about to see is not a news broadcast.” So ran the voiceover at the start of each episode of the classic 1980s Unsolved Mysteries, a pioneer docuseries thriving at the intersection of the factual and fantastical. Now Netflix has revived the show, adjusting its format for contemporary tastes and hoping to capitalize, presumably, on the true-crime revival that has swept podcasting (Serial), publishing (I’ll Be Gone in the Dark), and television (too many to list) in recent years. But TV has moved on from the theatrical ’80s vibe of the original series. The rebootimitating a show that relied on mass moral panic to justify covering alien sightings side by side with child sexual assaultis fatally confused about where its allegiances lie.

While the original Unsolved Mysteries needed the opening disclaimer to distinguish itself from news broadcasts, news is where it got its start. In 1985, NBC ran a series of surprise-hit specials called Missing: Have You Seen This Person? Several of the featured cases were solved by the American everyman watching at home, and a new kind of television show came to life. Sensing a golden opportunity to expand their hit specials into more profitable long-form entertainment, the Missing: Have You Seen This Person? producers Terry Dunn Meurer and John Cosgrove came up with a formula for a consumer-friendly, somewhat battier weekly version. They added a dignified presenter in a trenchcoat named Robert Stack (whom you may know from his role as Eliot Ness in NBC’s The Untouchables) and mixed the missing persons cases in with UFOs, wild speculation about the Freemasons, and stories about criminals on the run to watch out for in your local supermarket.

Unsolved Mysteries hit the air in 1988, with four mysteries per episode and over 20 episodes in each season, each based on a mixture of original research (performed by a clipping service in this pre-internet age) and viewer phone calls and letters, which arrived in droves. Soon enough, according to press notes distributed by Netflix, law enforcement started submitting cases, too. The show was initially a hit, running for nine series (that’s over 800 mysteries in total) before NBC canceled it. Sporadic attempts at resurrection, for example on Spike TV and Lifetime, have all failed, so far.

The show had become a classic victim of its own success, inspiring a whole generation of imitators that outcompeted the original, copying the producers’ strategy of using just enough truth to get by. By the time Unsolved Mysteries moved from Wednesday nights to 8 p.m. on Fridays in 1994, other scary-story compendium shows like Tales From the Crypt and Encounters: The Hidden Truth were airing simultaneously.

Meanwhile, the appearance of truth on TV was changing fast. George Holliday’s amateur footage of police beating Rodney King was beamed across the world in 1992, the first in a series of lessons teaching many viewers that the fuzzier and less staged documentary footage looked, the more likely it was to be real.

Unsolved Mysteries was made in the opposite style. Its episodes spooled through schlocky reenactments done by actors (including Matthew McConaughey, in his first credited screen role), extracting maximum drama from minimal fact. One segment, building on the era’s “Satanic Panic,” argued that a teenage boy’s suicide was a Dungeons and Dragons–based murder plot. By the time home footage became a part of TV’s language (Candid Camera, etc.), those who might have watched Unsolved Mysteries were switching to fiction: The X Files scooped up the UFO-enthusiast market as soon as it aired in 1993, and helped mold anti-government conspiracy speculation into its own entertainment genre. Unsolved Mysteries—a show that despite its fantastical mix of genres saw 260 of its featured cases later resolved, sometimes through viewer tips, according to The New York Times—simply didn’t feel novel anymore.

Elsewhere on television, a new genre with a different and more compelling spin on blurring fact and fiction would soon undercut the whole mystery genre: reality TV. From Judge Judy to 1992’s smash hit The Real World, American entertainment in the 1990s took all that was most engaging about mystery documentary shows (real personalities, real stakes, a constant revolving door of content) and made it personal. Where shows like Unsolved Mysteries or Forensic Files had run on a strange mix of voyeurism and altruism, with the viewer at home playing star witness, reality television would run on voyeurism alone—while proving easier and less expensive to make than documentaries.

The rise of true crime in recent years makes a lot of sense when you consider how fragmented American nonfiction television programming had become by the end of the 2010s. In 2009, for example, when recession and the prospect of perpetual war were rocking the United States, viewers looking for “real life” content were offered bafflingly stylized, even surreal shows like Cops, Jersey Shore, Teen Mom, and Toddlers and Tiaras. Quality documentary television was rare.

The decades-long progression from reenactments to amateur video footage and reality TV is, in part, a history of what makes on-screen events seem “true” in U.S. television. But it’s also, in Netflix’s hands, data for an ever-churning algorithm—a way of predicting the next success. The new Unsolved Mysteries feels precision-engineered for a 2020 audience—long-form, detailed, and bingeable—but devoid of all the flair and atmosphere that made the original seem untrue and yet interesting to watch.

Now there is no presenter or voiceover, and each hourlong episode focuses on a single, reality-style mystery; more like the chilling, unbelievable truth of The Jinx than the swirling dry ice of The X Files. Of six episodes, five revolve around people whose mysterious deaths were never solved, and one is about a UFO sighting. We meet the families of murder victims, see photos of their lost beloveds, and in one case hear what it’s like to discover your own brother’s body rotting in a rural ditch.

Shawn Levy, who made Arrival, Night at the Museum, and Stranger Things—also for Netflix, and also rooted in the genre we could call “1980s paranormal”—is the show’s executive producer. In press notes distributed by Netflix, he wrote that his new program “is very loyal to the things we all love about the [Unsolved Mysteries] brand,” citing its blend of supernatural with criminal topics and his retention of the old theme tune.

This reference to the show’s “brand” reveals something hollow at the core of the reboot, a kind of cynical nostalgia out of sync with today’s sensibilities. The final episode, “Missing Witness,” for example, is about a young girl whose mother almost certainly killed her. The dead girl’s sister says to the camera that she will devote her life to bringing her mother to justice. The previous episode was all about a group of people who claim, without much evidence, to have seen an enormous unidentified aircraft in September 1961. That contrast—between a murdered child and a spaceship—feels much more jarring than similar contrasts in the original show, in part because this show’s new framing is otherwise very serious and intimate. The show’s chemistry—its balance of light and dark, schlock and the human heart—is just plain strange, as if some robot at Netflix HQ were commissioned to create the most engaging possible TV show but had his empathy screw left loose.

Being unable to choose one documentary approach and stick with it, the new Unsolved Mysteries turns out to be a curiously soulless product that will leave viewers suspecting that one of their basest instincts (voyeurism) has been exploited in the name of one of their noblest (the desire to solve crimes, after all, is also an instinct toward justice). There’s nothing more ethical or truthful about this show compared to its predecessor—its production is simply “truthier” in style. We’re all smarter, more suspicious consumers of true crime than we were five years ago; we know now that DNA testing is a highly politicized technology, for example, and that Netflix will happily play fast and loose with the facts if it rakes in more viewers. In today’s world, where cold case files are more likely to lead to a conversation critiquing the criminal justice system than a tangent on alien abductions, Unsolved Mysteries smacks of yesterday’s news.