Very few beloved television shows that receive reboots successfully rejuvenate the format. Instead of giving thoughtful consideration to what made them great—or even if they should exist in a modern era now sensitive to past inequalities and ignorances—they are made to scratch some nostalgic itch. Call me a cynic, but when Netflix announced it was reviving Unsolved Mysteries, the show that ran for 14 seasons and produced over 500 episodes, my gut reaction was one of concern.
Without the late Robert Stack, the admirable and stoic host from 1987 and 2002, surely it would be lackluster. Who could fill his shoes, instilling fear in audiences nationwide with little more than his silhouette and the show’s infamous film noir title music? Without campy, low-budget re-enactments portrayed by mediocre actors to offer some lighthearted distraction from the brutality of the tale being told, what’s the point? And if they present those reenactments with glossy, high production value, like many Netflix reboots, they run the risk of re-traumatizing the very people whose stories they’ve chosen to tell.
After binging the first six episodes of the new series last week, it became apparent that producers asked themselves those same questions and found innovative solutions. Finally, there is a reboot worthy of its existence—even when there is already an endless barrage of new true crime shows to select from.
There are many striking differences between the new Unsolved Mysteries and the old, but certain similarities maintain the integrity of the original. For one, the theme song has only been slightly altered—it now carries the weight of past episodes and excitement for the new. Thematically, the shows are the same and cover a swath on unknowns: missing persons, murders, unexplained paranormal activity, and more. However, Netflix’s Unsolved Mysteries has no host—the show is narrated from the perspective of the people who experienced the mystery, and any reenactments are limited to artful shots of someone exiting a car, or the location the crime was committed. So far, there have been no scenes of gratuitous violence against women—a welcomed improvement from the original show.
Instead of shoving four cases of some unusual occurrence into one episode, each mystery is given its own 45-minute block to unravel, information revealed as if it were happening in real-time. The selected stories, too, seem to have some expansive, modern appeal: the third episode, “House of Terror,” takes place in France, and is recorded entirely in French—it’s hard to imagine past audiences being as welcoming to non-English language primetime television—and quickly posits that the father of the family, Xavier Dupont de Ligonnès, murdered his wife, children, and dogs—but asks whether or not he lived or escaped to South America. Wanted fugitives are, of course, Unsolved Mysteries’ bread and butter, but in this case, the criminal was royalty—a surprising story that could be made into a short documentary film all its own.
And then, of course, there is the deeply disturbing fourth episode, “No Ride Home,” a harrowingly contemporary crime that follows the alleged murder of Alonzo Brooks, a Black man in rural Kansas, who disappeared after attending a party in an all-white country town in the state. Local law enforcement refused to allow his family to search for any trace of him or his body until one month later—and once they did, they found his remains within an hour. Without being too explicit, the stench of a hate crime hangs heavy. It’s impossible to imagine the original show would tackle issues of racism at all, let alone in this way. (For what it’s worth, Brooks’s death was never determined foul play, just “suspicious,” another damning reality that, if Brooks were white, or if he disappeared in a town with a diverse population higher than 1,000, this wouldn’t be an unsolved mystery at all.)
If Netflix’s Unsolved Mysteries has already proven its producers know how to build upon the original true crime show’s foundation to tell the kinds of stories that interest and matter to a contemporary audience, there’s no telling how far they can run with the reboot. And because of Netflix’s global ubiquity, the show’s producers have already received 20 credible tips since the reboot debuted last week, IndieWire reports. If those clues prove to be successful, I’d love to see them explore follow-up episodes in some Solved Mysteries spin-off. The only thing more satiating than forming your own conspiracy theories about the episodes is seeing them resolved. Until then, the new show is worth a binge, just maybe not before bed.