Netflix’s Unsolved Mysteries isn't just lurid entertainment - it inspires us to become amateur detectives
Yes, it’s a thrilling watch, but this new docuseries might just perform a public service, too.
By Jo Berry
You don’t need to be a detective to know that true crime is a TV ratings winner.
Whether it’s the dramatic depiction of The Salisbury Poisonings, so gripping because the headlines of 2018 are still fresh in our memories, or hit documentary series Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich (that now has a News at Ten sequel of sorts playing out in real time following the arrest of associate Ghislaine Maxwell), there is something fascinating, disturbing, horrifying and addictive about watching the dark and hidden part of real people come to light.
What The Salisbury Poisonings, Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich and, indeed, Netflix’s huge successes Dirty John and Tiger King all have in common is that their crime stories have a beginning, middle and an end. Yes, there may be some questions left unanswered, but each show has a reasonably satisfying conclusion. The bad guys may not always have been caught, but we know who they are.
That’s not the case, as the title suggests, with new Netflix real life crime series Unsolved Mysteries. A reboot of the cult US series that ran from 1987 to 2002 with host Robert Stack, this new series is produced by Stranger Things’ Shawn Levy and features one puzzling case per episode. Unlike the original, there is no host or narrator to guide you (although a brief silhouette of Stack appears as a tribute in the opening credits) – each episode is a stark 45-minute documentary made up of witness interviews, re-enactments and evidence about a case that has yet to be solved.
As the facts are presented – a French family are murdered but the corpse of the husband is not among the bodies discovered; a writer’s body falls through a roof into an abandoned hotel conference room but did he jump or was he pushed? – it is left up to the audience to play amateur detective and theorise whodunit, why and how.
While some viewers may find the lack of resolution frustrating, especially in the heartbreaking case of young Alonzo Brooks who never made it home from a party and is suspected to be the victim of a hate crime, it can also be quite addictive to watch and attempt to draw your own conclusions, and to try to solve a crime in less than an hour that the police have failed to resolve – in some cases for many years.
Of course, if your TV diet includes reruns of fictional shows like Bones and CSI, you’ll question why there isn’t some medical genius on call who can pinpoint exact time and method of death and determine the murderer from a chipped tooth, tyre track or specific weave of fabric. But this is real life, and each family featured whose loved one is missing or dead knows that the evidence isn’t always perfect and the mystery isn’t always solved. Perhaps someone watching Unsolved Mysteries might spot something, know something, and – thanks to the contact details given at the end of each episode – gets in touch to provide insight into a case that has otherwise gone cold?
In the first six episodes, five shine a light on forgotten cases, and those closed by police due to lack of evidence. The re-enactments are handled sensitively – you barely see the actors’ faces so are never drawn out of the story – and are interspersed with family members and law enforcement talking about the cases they desperately want solved.
Although it sometimes comes across as a glossy and slightly soapy version of Crimewatch (or even a DIY guide to how to dispose of a body), Unsolved Mysteries never sensationalises the crime or exploits the participants, and you will find yourself hoping that the episode leads someone to remember something, anything that leads to an arrest. (Some of the crimes from the original series were solved following tip-offs from the public, so there is hope). Yes, it’s entertainment, but the heartbroken faces of those left behind remind you, often, that the show hopefully performs a public service, too.
There is a downside, however, to the new series. As with the original Unsolved Mysteries, the show doesn’t just deal with missing persons, suspicious deaths and family secrets. It also dabbles in the paranormal and, unfortunately, in the new series this is where it fumbles. While the true crime episodes don’t exploit the participants and instead shine a light on forgotten stories that need to be remembered, one of the first of six new instalments – Berkshires UFO – interviews the residents of a Massachusetts county who all encountered a UFO in 1969, and despite the best of intentions, makes them all look pretty silly.
Unless you are an ardent believer in aliens, it’s an uncomfortable watch as people recount their earnest experience of bright lights, being abducted and waking up in fields the next day with little memory of what has happened. You want to take them as seriously as the victims in other episodes, but there’s something just, well, awkward about it all.
The producers should stick to the real crime cases – the ones that hopefully can and should be solved – and leave the supernatural stuff to someone else… Mulder and Scully, perhaps?