Primetimer editor-at-large Sarah D. Bunting knows a thing or two about true crime. She founded the true crime site The Blotter, and is the host of its weekly podcast, The Blotter Presents. Her weekly column here on Primetimer is dedicated to all things true crime on TV.
In many ways, 2020 is the perfect time to reboot a beloved franchise like Unsolved Mysteries. The definition of "comfort TV" has shifted for many viewers, but for original-UM fans like myself, everything about the original brings us back to a simpler-seeming time, from the creepy minor chords of the theme to the energetically bad re-enactments (occasionally featuring future stars, like Matthew McConaughey, or future husbands — like mine in the last segment of S02.E14). And of course there's famous original host Robert Stack, whose somber narration (and official-looking trenchcoat) lent the proceedings a certain dignity, even when a segment involved cheesy CGI "ghosts." His voice brings many of us right back to the late nights we spent with the show while babysitting, eating Rocky Road ice cream, and jumping every time the house settled.
Even if the producers — the same ones who created the original have teamed with Shawn Levy of Strangers Things — can't count on nostalgia alone to attract eyeballs, an Unsolved Mysteries reboot still isn't a bad bet, because the twenty-first century is the age of the internet sleuth. Reddit alone is cranking away on mysterious deaths and disappearances 24/7, and the identification and arrest of the Golden State Killer is a testament to the power of one blogger's focus and determination. What better time than a pandemic year, with so many people looking for at-home projects, for a program to return that actively draws its audience into cases to help crack them?
So, the timing of the UM reboot makes sense for Netflix, and so does the decision to proceed without a host. Few people remember that Stack, who died in 2003, was preceded by Raymond Burr and Karl Malden; Stack's successor, Dennis Farina, had just the right energy for the role and didn't try to imitate or replace the iconic Stack, but he died in 2013. I can think of a handful of prospective heirs to the hosting throne — Dennis Haysbert; Sigourney Weaver; Dateline's Keith Morrison, if you want to capture a certain campy self-seriousness the original had to it — but the new UM is structured in a way that would make a host superfluous, and takes the producers off the hook for casting incorrectly. The reboot's choices make sense. But is the new show any good?
In the opinion of this fan of the original... it is! Not least because the reboot understands what we loved about it — and makes a point of holding onto signature elements that will make fans happy. The opening theme's been edited down to highlight the most haunting chord progression of the original, and while Netflix lets you skip the intro, my fellow original-flavor devotees should watch at least once to see the CGI mists resolve into a ghostly silhouette of Stack. Beyond that, the reboot departs fairly significantly from its namesake, and it's smart to do so. As befits its spot in the Netflix line-up, UM: TNG feels more prestige-y; it looks more expensive, and while the re-enactments aren't exactly stunning, they're shot with more flair and less scenery-chewing. (Not none, mind you, but less.) The focus, at least in the first half-dozen episodes dropping today, is on mostly true-crime topics (there's one UFO case). And each episode follows a single case, instead of jumping around from hauntings, to disappearances, to treasure-hunters in a single hour the way the original did. Because the reboot has more time to tell each case's story, it's more careful in delivering the facts of the mysteries. The new UM sometimes strains to create suspense with regard to whether a given case subject is still "merely" missing, or known to be dead, which may make some viewers impatient. But restless Googling of the evidence is part of the point of Unsolved Mysteries — the show wants you to try to fit the pieces together on your own — so while I sometimes mark off for stately pacing, it's suitable here.
The new episodes' real gift is making space for the grief, guilt, and straight-up weirdness in the stories they tell. The premiere episode, which re-investigates the strange death of Rey Rivera, closes with the subject's brother sighing that Rey "has missed everything" — there's joy in the family, weddings, new babies, but still always the space where Rey used to be. In the next interview, Rey's widow talks about avoiding their wedding video, because it's one thing to look at still photos, "but when he's moving?" She trails off. Yes, UM wants home viewers to help solve these puzzles, but these aren't just codes for us to crack. There are families, struggling to fill holes that can never be filled. In a later episode, a medical examiner gets off a good line about how most people will "dispose of a body in convenient fashions." And then there's Episode 2's Rob, who seems to have no idea how he's perceived. That would explain why he admits to canoodling with his late wife's skull at the funeral home, then snuggling with her ashes "like my teddy bear" (and, not for nothing, refusing to share her cremains with his estranged stepson, who isn't the only one to consider Rob a suspect), although the explanation for why he did these things in the first place may be quite a bit darker.
Do we need the new Unsolved Mysteries? Maybe not. It's wise to avoid disappointing us with an underwhelming recreation of the original, but at the same time, it's not doing anything all that groundbreaking. Still, the show is well made, it's selected compelling stories, and the theme song's plaintive plinking is like an old friend.
The first six episodes of Netflix's Unsolved Mysteries reboot drop today.
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Sarah D. Bunting co-founded Television Without Pity, and her work has appeared in Glamour and New York, and on MSNBC, NPR's Monkey See blog, MLB.com, and Yahoo!. Find her at her true-crime newsletter, Best Evidence, and on TV podcasts Extra Hot Great and Again With This.