Spawned from a series of prime-time missing-persons specials in 1985, the original “Unsolved Mysteries” laid some of the foundation for the modern true-crime phenomenon, turning regular citizens into detectives, paranormal investigators and U.F.O. experts. Unlike the regular news broadcasts of its day, “Unsolved Mysteries” urged viewers to get involved and call in with tips, leading many of the cases to be solved with the help of everyday people.
The solvable ones, that is. Not so much with those involving Bigfoot and haunted houses.
When the Netflix reboot debuts on Wednesday, the theme music will be familiar, but much else will have changed, including the format. What abides is its focus on the unexplained, whether pulled from old police files or steeped in paranormal legend. In the years since its heyday in the late ’80s and ’90s, imitators have come and gone, but “Unsolved Mysteries” remains. Here’s what to know before watching.
Created by John Cosgrove and Terry Dunn Meurer, “Unsolved Mysteries” began in 1985 as a series of three specials — basically televised versions of milk carton alerts — titled “Missing … Have You Seen This Person?” The specials proved successful enough to expand the concept into something encompassing different kinds of mysteries, including unsolved crimes, lost loves, paranormal activity and alien abductions.
Raymond Burr hosted the pilot of “Unsolved Mysteries” in January 1987, followed by two more specials hosted by Karl Malden and another four hosted by the actor Robert Stack, perhaps best known for his Emmy-winning role in “The Untouchables” (1959-63). In 1988, NBC turned the program into a weekly offering and made Stack the full-time host. It was sensationalistic, it had low-budget aesthetic, and the dramatizations could be downright sleazy and laughable. But it was often a lot of fun.
After nine seasons on NBC, “Unsolved Mysteries” was canceled and picked up by CBS, which tried to resurrect the program with shortened seasons and, briefly, a co-host in Virginia Madsen. But it didn’t last. “Unsolved Mysteries” was claimed by Lifetime, which had already been airing reruns of the show, and Stack returned until prostate cancer sidelined him and the show again in 2002. (He died in 2003.)
In 2008, Spike TV launched the first real reboot of the show, but it merely repackaged old segments instead of producing new ones. Hosted by Dennis Farina, it often confused viewers by presenting cases that were no longer unsolved. It was canceled in 2010.
When “Unsolved Mysteries” premiered, NBC was careful to distinguish it from the programming coming out of its news division. Episodes included a disclaimer that ended, “What you are about to see is not a news broadcast.” Even the show’s casting recalled scripted crime dramas — Raymond Burr had played Perry Mason and Robert Stack had played Eliot Ness. These were famous crime solvers, further blurring the line between news and fiction in a way that continued on TV in the years to come.
As the show rose in popularity, the way television covered true crime changed. Viewers became amateur crime solvers as “Unsolved Mysteries” and its partner in prime-time crime, Fox’s “America’s Most Wanted,” became ratings hits. Episodes of “Unsolved Mysteries” encouraged viewers to send in tips, and it often worked — more than 260 cases resolved, as The Times recently reported, or about 34 percent. Updates often offered details about how a viewer had solved a previous week’s crime or reconnected with long-lost relatives. For viewers, the thought that a murderer or missing person might be someone they knew gave the show an energy that presaged the kind of true-crime obsessiveness found today on internet message boards and in the rabid fan bases of podcasts like “Serial” and “My Favorite Murder.”
As true crime became an interactive industry in the decades since the premiere of “Unsolved Mysteries,” other shows followed suit. Programs like “48 Hours” and “Dateline NBC,” originally formatted as timely newsmagazines, began to focus more on criminal cases. Netflix and HBO helped turn true crime into a prestige TV industry, airing series like “The Innocence Files” and “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” that are fueled by searches for justice and resolution.
A hallmark of “Unsolved Mysteries” became the re-creations of horrific crimes and unexplainable events. Most of the performances in these dramatizations wouldn’t make an actor’s highlight reel, but familiar faces pop up throughout the run of the series. Matthew McConaughey appeared in a Season 5 episode as the murder victim of Edward Bell, who was arrested with the help of viewer tips shortly after the episode aired. In the next season, the future “Hawaii Five-0” star Daniel Dae Kim appeared briefly as the brother-in-law of Su Ya Kim, whose murder remains unsolved.
A young Taran Killam (“Saturday Night Live”), Robert Stack’s great-nephew, appeared in Season 7. And Jim Beaver (“Supernatural,” “Deadwood”) appeared as an expert on the history of the “Superman” star George Reeves, convincingly arguing that Reeves’s suicide was correctly solved.
A byproduct of “Unsolved Mysteries” was that, for better or worse, its kitchen-sink approach created a sense of equivalency among seemingly disparate cases: A child murderer might get the same basic treatment as a conspiracy theory about the death of Elvis Presley.
Whether that was good for the integrity of facts in America is debatable, but the show’s scope was certainly democratic. Over hundreds of episodes, the series covered mysteries ranging from alien abductions to the Zodiac killer — no case was too big, small or outlandish — often shining a light on cases that might otherwise have been forgotten. And in the decade since the show went off the air, unsolved cases have continued to find life on the its official website, which still serves as an information portal — and a tipster hotline — for armchair internet sleuths.
“Unsolved Mysteries” can’t look the same in 2020. Not only has a wave of imitators raised the ante, but aesthetic standards have evolved, and the 24-hour news cycle has changed what can rise above the din. And so the executive producers of the Netflix reboot (including Cosgrove and Meurer) adapted the show to meet the times. Each episode, which lasts around 50 minutes, focuses on a single mystery instead of several, and the production is much more cinematic.
And there is no host — the interviews and the editing tell the story now. Today’s viewers, more attuned to true crime, don’t need Eliot Ness to lead the investigation.
Still longtime fans shouldn’t be disappointed; the basic spirit hasn’t changed. The first six episodes include examinations of a suspicious suicide, a missing person and even a town convinced it has been visited repeatedly by aliens. And every episode still ends with a call to action. Maybe you can solve a mystery.
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