The editor-in-chief of the daily newsletter Best Evidence, Sarah D. Bunting knows a thing or two about true crime. Her weekly column here on Primetimer is dedicated to all things true-crime TV.
When Netflix dropped the first "volume" of its rebooted Unsolved Mysteries over the summer, I enjoyed the reimagining of a classic chiller from my youth. It incorporated just enough nostalgic elements of the original — creepy theme; ghostly Robert Stack title card — while updating the show to give it a more prestige look, and devoting entire episodes to deep dives into individual cases. And when Netflix decided to hold back half of the first season for a later release date, I assumed it was partly to ration new content, the way so many networks have done this year... but I also thought maybe it was so producers could incorporate another treasured aspect of the original series into the second set of episodes, the "Update" segment.
No such luck, despite a flurry of activity around various cases featured in the July episodes, including the death of Rey Rivera — and of course the Alonzo Brooks case, which the FBI reopened in the wake of that Unsolved Mysteries episode, exhuming his body as part of the renewed investigation. It's unlikely authorities would comment on open cases, of course, but I would have liked to hear that urgent Casio line alerting me to fresh intel on a previous story. Still, despite the absence of updates, the second installment of the reboot is solid; it's almost exclusively focused on true crime and crime-adjacent mysteries, and it gets a couple of name directors behind the camera. Some episodes work better than others, though — so if you've only got time for two or three? I've listed five new ones (the half-season has six total, but one is about "spirits"), from most indispensable to least.
Episode 2 - "A Death In Oslo." The second volume's second episode harkens back to old-school Unsolved Mysteries segments about other unidentified dead — Little Miss 1565; the Somerton Man — that used to send a tiny icy chill up my spine back in the day. "Jennifer Fairgate" died of a gunshot wound in a fancy Oslo hotel in 1995... but that probably wasn't her name; she had no ID, no toiletries, no labels in her clothing, no feasible way of firing the shot that killed her (which Oslo investigators ruled a suicide), and nobody has ever come forward to claim her body, despite multiple revivals of the story across several European countries. Was she a spy? An assassin who got got? Episode director Robert M. Wise, a veteran of the original series (and ID-channel filler like Deadly Dentists), knows how to construct an Unsolved Mysteries story for maximum creep, and that picture of Fairgate's burial, her casket in an empty sepia room, will stick with you.
Episode 1 - "Washington Insider Murder." The new Unsolved Mysteries is maddeningly effective in how it doles out information on each case, and the second volume's premiere is, as it were, Exhibit A. The episode opens with the discovery of veterans' advocate Jack Wheeler's body in a landfill, but takes nearly half the episode to lay out a timeline of Wheeler's known last movements in detail. That said, director Don Argott (Framing John DeLorean) has an uncanny sense of when a viewer is going to grumble aloud, "Well, but what about-" and will cut in right then with an answer, an additional bit of info, or a talking-head interview debunking a theory. This episode also has good process-y bits when it retraces a garbage truck's route to the specific dumpster Wheeler was placed (or hid himself) in.
Episode 6 - "Stolen Kids." This one is both affecting — the line-up of forensically "aged" photos of missing toddlers at the end is brutal — and strangely incomplete in its narrative of two Black toddlers who went missing from the same area of NYC at either end of the summer of 1989. Despite growing up in the tri-state area, I don't remember the case at all, which could speak to the self-absorption of the average high-school junior, but may also speak to the way cases involving missing and exploited children of color were covered back then... when they were covered at all. Jessica Dimmock of Flint Town is at the helm for this one, and she's generally a good director, but based on the comparatively short runtime, it kind of feels like the producers decided the task of providing crime and racial-injustice context for New York City at that time was too big a job for a single episode, and proceeded without it... even though that may have been what defined this pair of stories. Worth watching, but a missed opportunity.
Episode 3 - "Death Row Fugitive." The disappearance of former death-row inmate Lester Eubanks is a crazy story; sentenced to die for the murder of a child in the '60s, sexual predator Eubanks was sent to "gen pop" when the death penalty was ruled unconstitutional in 1972; conned himself into an honor program that allowed certain inmates to work and move about in the community; and walked away from a Christmas-shopping outing and into thin air in 1973. Despite a "just missed him" quality to the tracking of the fugitive, for some reason this chapter feels flat. Maybe it's the sense that it's trying, passive-aggressively, to indict anti-death-penalty/prisoners' rights reforms for a miscarriage of justice, but between that and its avoidance of certain unpleasant specifics, this one doesn't quite work.
Episode 5 - "Lady In The Lake. The story of JoAnn Romain's disputed death in Grosse Pointe, MI ten years ago isn't bad — none of the new episodes are — but it's a disappointment relative to its pedigree, as it's directed by Abducted In Plain Sight's Skye Borgman. Unfortunately, the narrative here relies pretty heavily on family members insisting that Romain "would never" have done various things police concluded she'd done prior to her drowning, which just isn't very compelling — and a number of aggravating factors in Romain's family life aren't revealed until late in the episode. Borgman is a proven pro at "and then" reveals within a crime story, but she can't get this one to go.
Unsolved Mysteries Volume 2 drops on Netflix October 19th.
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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.