‘Unsolved Mysteries’ Breaks the Netflix Crime Formula by Hearkening to Original

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In 2020 Netflix premiered its reboot of “Unsolved Mysteries,” the popular true-crime series that ran from 1987 until 2002. Host Robert Stack invited viewers to “help solve a mystery,” and its original run — alongside “America’s Most Wanted” and “Rescue 911” — helped launch the national appetite for true crime.

Netflix’s reboot was seen as another move on the part of the streamer to harness the power of nostalgia. But the show’s first season didn’t possess the magic of the original series, focusing on one mystery per episode and generally relying on murder and disappearances.

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Now in its third season, “Unsolved Mysteries” is finally leaning more towards the beloved original, blending the usual unexplained murders and disappearances with episodes focused on UFOs and ghosts — though still no sign of  “Unsolved” staple “Lost Loves,” which focused on reuniting adopted children with their families. But even as it finds its footing as a series, “Unsolved Mysteries” feels completely adrift from the standard Netflix true crime docs that the service churns out every month.

As Netflix turns away from gobbling up existing IP to focus on creating new content, “Unsolved Mysteries” feels even more of an outlier — especially in comparison to other true crime docs. Compared to the surfeit of shows about serial killers and cults currently streaming, there’s something almost homey about “Unsolved Mysteries.”

The original series’ success stemmed in large part from its focus on real people and real mysteries. As the opening title card read, “Whenever possible, the actual family members and police officials have participated in recreating the events.” And those witnesses skewed towards the working class, just people going through everyday horror stories like a child disappearing from a public park. Even the UFO and ghost episodes carried an air of relatability because they don’t include any paranormal experts. In many instances, the events were decades old with no video evidence.

That simplicity kept “Unsolved Mysteries” in the hearts of its fans, and the third volume of the reboot comes the closest to that feeling. Releasing three episodes in succession — one focused on a disappearance, another on UFOs, and one on a murder — allows newcomers to the series a broad idea of what “Unsolved Mysteries” is about while course-correcting the criticism that Season 1 was front-loaded with murder. It’s also to the show’s advantage to blend contemporary crimes from the last decade with an unsolved UFO sighting from the 1980s. The fascination of “Unsolved Mysteries” is how many mysteries can remain unsolved, sometimes for decades.

“Unsolved Mysteries” - Credit: Netflix
“Unsolved Mysteries” - Credit: Netflix


If anything, the reboot should lean into that more, perhaps by revisiting a mystery from the original series. With the ability to devote 45–50 minutes to a mystery, the Netflix series could explore a past story, perhaps even interviewing the original interview subjects about how their lives have changed since the initial airing.

“Unsolved Mysteries” is a clear case of how a nostalgic reboot can honor its predecessor while making a solid case for its existence now. By leaning into the original’s grasp of contemporary fears and focusing on the normal within the abnormal, the show has a distinct advantage over the other true crime docs that wallow in the lurid details. Now, if only they could get a host to approximate Robert Stack’s ominous narration.

“Unsolved Mysteries” drops episodes every Tuesday on Netflix.

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