True crime shows don’t often earn praise for their levity; melodramatic narration, exaggerated reenactments and sensational theorizing have long formed the backbone of the genre. Balancing droll asides and puns with the minutiae of kidnappings and murders is admittedly a counterintuitive creative choice.
But it’s precisely this mix between the conversational and the criminal that has helped “BuzzFeed Unsolved” grow into one of BuzzFeed’s flagship projects. What began with a four-minute video now spans both supernatural- and true crime-themed seasons, a standalone YouTube network and an ardent internet fan base. The linchpin of the show’s popularity is the dynamic between the show’s co-hosts: Ryan Bergara, who narrates each episode, and his friend Shane Madej, who aids Bergara in providing color commentary — poking fun at odd circumstances or incompetencies that led to cold cases being unsolved.
This dynamic, as well as the show’s unique visual aesthetic (defined by PowerPoint-esque graphics and described by Bergara as emulating “a crazy guy in his basement”), differentiates “Unsolved” from the rest of BuzzFeed’s aggressively palatable and largely homogenous short-form content. The fifth season of “BuzzFeed Unsolved: True Crime” is no exception, gifting viewers with a varied roster of cold cases, shrewd writing and top-tier banter from the two co-hosts.
The eight episodes of this season run the gamut, covering kidnappings, forced confessions, mobsters and murder. The statuses of the cases, too, vary — some are so murky that all theories seem like shots in the dark, while others see Bergara point out an obvious solution (it was a mob hit) but puzzle over particularities (which individual fired the gun). Unsurprisingly, the standout episodes of the season fall into the former category: The weirder the case, the fewer the solutions, the livelier the story.
The season premiere, “The Eerie Case of the Watcher,” is one such standout, seeing Bergara and Madej tackle a stalker case that’s significantly more recent than their usual fare; their send-ups of the self-proclaimed “Watcher” and his histrionic, stylized letters provide some of the best gags of the season. The second episode, “The Unusual Australian Shark Arm Murders,” is similarly appealing, with a singularly weird central case and perhaps the best script of the eight episodes, boasting a near-unforgivable number of nautical puns and four outlandish, equally plausible theories.
Other highlights include “The Suspicious Case of the Reykjavik Confessions,” which sheds a light on the injustices Iceland’s police department committed in order to feign a solution to a mysterious disappearance, and “The Curious Death of Vincent Van Gogh,” which questions the ubiquitous belief that Van Gogh was a tortured genius, presenting a staggeringly convincing alternative theory that he was murdered. These episodes manage to fit the show’s signature format while also adroitly addressing some significant topics — flaws in the criminal justice system and the problematic belief that great art only comes from poor mental health.
It’s a testament to the overall quality of the season that installments with a more typical focus are simply solid entries in comparison to the more innovative, unique episodes. Both “The Horrifying Texarkana Phantom Killer” and “The Shocking Florida Machete Murder” maintain the house style of the series but don’t break the wheel; other cases are comparably well-written and fun to watch but lose some mystique as a consequence of being more “mostly solved” than “unsolved.”
But these episodes do nothing to slow the momentum of this season or the series as a whole; Bergara and Madej’s bro-y chemistry remains effortlessly charming, and their amateur assessments of the cases, especially the wackier ones, continue to entertain. The show’s co-hosts certainly aren’t doing anything resembling real detective work, but as the show’s title suggests, that’s really not the point.
Perhaps one day, Bergara and Madej’s antics will lead to a long-dormant mystery being solved (stranger things have happened). But even if they never crack a single case, the show’s unique ability to find suitable humor in one of the public’s darker obsessions will continue to separate it as one of the best things on the internet — that, and a propensity for great shark puns.
Contact Grace Orriss at [email protected].