Netflix’s ‘Unsolved Mysteries’ showcases bizarre, head-scratching whodunits

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Grade: 4.0/5.0

Netflix’s newest documentary series, “Unsolved Mysteries,” is taking an old TV favorite and revamping it for the modern age. Trading in the former analogue aesthetic for more up-to-date crime analysis, the new season has all of the investigative nostalgia without so much of the melodrama.

“Unsolved Mysteries” initially premiered on NBC in 1987. After moving to CBS, to Lifetime and then to Spike, the show trickled off to cancellation in 2010. With Netflix taking over for season 15, the show has fewer episodes than previous seasons — but this seems to be a case of quality over quantity.

The official episodes on YouTube from previous seasons have garnered a varied amount of attention, but not nearly as much as the current reboot, which has spent some time planted on Netflix’s list of top 10 shows or movies streaming in the United States today.

In past seasons, the show focused on a host who would guide viewers through the haunting tale at hand. The new season, however, lets interviewees and an unidentified background narrator do most of the heavy lifting. This method of storytelling comes across as original, easy to follow and inherently emotional, as firsthand accounts of these tales — whether from children, parents, friends or otherwise — add layers of humanity to these strange deaths and disappearances.

But similar to the older seasons, Netflix includes story reenactments so viewers can follow along visually as well. These high-production retellings almost make you believe that what you’re seeing is real-time footage — even if the event is something someone was most definitely not filming.

Alongside this, each episode is guided by clean, helpful timeline graphics that allow viewers to keep close track of crucial events. These added visuals enhance the feeling of being an at-home detective; in one circumstance, animations even calculate and display the various ways one victim could have jumped (or been pushed?) off of a hotel roof. The use of these various graphics keeps the momentum of the stories moving forward for the duration of the series — it’s rare that a subject sidetracks or a point isn’t quickly moved from A to B.

While some episodes detail UFO sightings and totally unexplained killings, many of the episodes follow family members who believe their loved one was killed by, well, another family member. If you thought it was entertaining to watch Carole Baskin get accused of murder, wait until you meet some of these folks. 

In the third episode, arguably one of the more unsettling episodes of the series, a whole family is discovered murdered and buried under the porch of its household. Everyone … except dad, that is. This story takes place in France, and the subtitled episode brings an international crime story into the picture, branching out from the otherwise American tragedies. It’s clear that the show frames an explanation for each narrative, but the final decision always remains a smidge unclear.

The only installment that doesn’t follow a murder mystery is the fifth episode, which investigates the extraterrestrial activity in Berkshire County, Massachusetts, in 1969. The break from serial murders is a well-appreciated respite from the heaviness, and the madness of these alien sightings is sure to encourage manic Googling for days. But then again, so is every episode of this series — happy stress-watching.

Once the stories have come to an unfulfilled close, an end screen appears with phone numbers and contact information for anyone watching who may have intel about the featured unsolved occurrence. Rather than just tell the open-ended story and leave viewers pondering, the show takes a wider step to try and help families, friends and others finally come to a solid conclusion about these strange cases. 

And with a new and improved format making these stories all the more touching and emotionally engaging, these new mysteries are sure to resonate.

Skylar De Paul covers television. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @skylardepaul.