In case a Netflix reboot was not enough, Unsolved Mysteries co-creator Terry Dunn Meurer dropped one of the show’s trademark updates right in the middle of our interview to prove that the old standby is still in prime form. Turns out, a case the show covered in 1993 might be turning a corner.
Months ago, a law enforcement officer opened up an old police file box in the hopes of dusting off a decades-old case in which a John Doe killed himself in a church. The bin was empty save for one thing—a video tape of the 1993 Unsolved Mysteries segment on the subject.
“Everything else is gone,” Meurer told The Daily Beast. “We went back and we—miraculously, I don’t know how we ever had it—but we had all the details of this case.”
Now, Meurer said, authorities have almost cracked the man’s identity. Meurer’s satisfaction was palpable, even through the phone, as she said, “The pieces just keep getting solved.”
Unsolved Mysteries is one of those TV phenomena that just won’t die. Meurer co-created the series with John Cosgrove in 1987. The show’s template was simple: recount cold cases that ran the gamut of not only crimes, but also lost loves and the occasional extra-terrestrial story.
Meurer’s favorite holiday growing up was Halloween. As a kid, she pored over Nancy Drew books and, later, novels by Agatha Christie. Perhaps that’s why she made the distinction, while discussing how Unsolved Mysteries first came to be, that she and her fellow producers never thought they were making a true-crime show.
“We always have thought of the show as a mystery show,” she said. “So we did everything from lost heirs—you know, money that’s sitting in the bank account, but they can’t find the person it belongs to—to lost love cases, treasure cases, murder, and wanted fugitives. With the goal always being, perhaps someone somewhere knows the truth.”
“That was always the goal,” Meurer said. “Was to find that one person, find that one clue.”
What set Unsolved Mysteries apart from other broadcast series at the time was its interactive bent. The show employed a research team of 12, who identified stories of interest using a news clip service and urged viewers with any information that might help revive and solve these cases to call in. (Eventually, the show started soliciting viewer tips by internet.) It was the first series of its kind—a project whose interactive spirit feels alive and well in contemporary social media sensations like Making a Murderer.
But more than anything, the show’s one-of-a-kind aesthetic set it apart. Production trends of the time, combined with the show’s earnest passion for mysteries, produced a series that could be equal parts creepy and corny. The lurid stories, combined with now-dated re-enactments and longtime host Robert Stack’s narration—alternately cheesy and chilling—are a singular kind of aesthetic and emotional paradox. For fans who fell in love with the series in its prime, there is simply nothing else like it.
“We were always looking for diversity across the board,” Meurer added. “We didn’t want to just do one episode and have all murder cases, so we wanted to mix up the categories. We want to mix up the ethnic diversity, racial diversity, age diversity, location. We wanted a combination of rural versus urban, international…”
“Basically our criteria for the Netflix series are the same,” Meurer said. “It’s making the stories as diverse as we possibly can so that the audience feels like you’re getting a whole different story with (each) episode.”
The original Unsolved Mysteries ran for a decade on NBC after its 1987 premiere, and then jumped to CBS for two short years. There was a one-year stint at Lifetime after that, but the show ceased production after Stack was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Unsolved Mysteries returned again on Spike in 2008, but the new iteration—which featured truncated segments, no new cases, and new host Dennis Farina struggling to take on Stack’s role—never really caught on with fans.
Given its rich history as a comeback kid, it’s hardly surprising that Unsolved Mysteries is here to stage another encore. But the success or failure of this new iteration will hinge on its ability to recapture its predecessor’s spirit.
“Bob Stacks was such an iconic part of the show, it was hard to imagine anyone filling his shoes—or sometimes, I say filling his trench coat.”
— ‘Unsolved Mysteries’ co-creator Terry Dunn Meurer
Like the original, the six episodes provided for review spanned a wide range of topics. One episode features a French patriarch who appears to have killed his entire family before leaving the country; another centers on a mass UFO sighting from decades ago; another investigates the mysterious death of a small-town hairdresser and mother.
The most dramatic difference in this new version, which Meurer and Cosgrove executive-produce alongside Stranger Things director Shawn Levy, is the pacing. Instead of covering four stories per episode through short segments, each new Unsolved runs for 45 to 50 minutes and focuses on one case.
Condensing complex cases to 12- and 15-minute segments for the original series was no easy feat, Meurer insists; “there were so, so many details, so much of the mysteries that was left on the editing room floor.” Giving each mystery its own episode means the show can cover fewer cases, Meurer admits, but it does allow for more attention to detail.
It is nice for these stories to have a little more breathing room—but nonetheless, something seems to be missing. The off-kilter appeal of the original Unsolved Mysteries—creepiness steeped in dorkiness—is nowhere to be found here. Instead, the new Unsolved has much the same aesthetic as Netflix’s other recent docu-series—wide, desaturated landscape shots, lots of high-contrast B-roll, and close-ups of frowning people smoking cigarettes. Sometimes, the extra time allows a complex case to unfold in satisfying fashion; sometimes you’ll feel like you’ve heard the same fact repeated five times.
But the revival also includes a few wise maneuvers—most crucially the choice to skip having a host.
“Bob Stacks was such an iconic part of the show, it was hard to imagine anyone filling his shoes—or sometimes, I say filling his trench coat,” Meurer said. “I don’t know if anybody would even want to try, to tell you the truth.”
“The off-kilter appeal of the original Unsolved Mysteries—creepiness steeped in dorkiness—is nowhere to be found here.”
“We miss Bob,” she added. “We miss his voice, we miss his gravitas and the creepiness that he brings to it, and his storytelling ability. But we do feel like these episodes stand on their own, and we’re happy that the people involved in the mysteries are able to tell more of their own stories.”
One could fairly argue that eschewing a new narrator is actually just a copout—a choice made out of fear that any new narrator could go the way of Farina. But in at least one episode this season, that choice proves to be the right one.
One episode this season covers the murder of Alonzo Brooks, a 23-year-old Black man who disappeared after attending a party in rural Kansas. Brooks had attended the party with a group of white friends, all of whom made it home safe and none of whom could account for Brooks’ whereabouts the next day after leaving him there. As Brooks’ family and close friends discuss the night in the interviews that narrate the episode, everyone involved seems to agree that Brooks’ white friends failed to protect him that night—even from some of the friends themselves.
Episodes like the Brooks one make the case for expanding these mysteries beyond 15-minute segments, even if doing so does dilute some of the show’s original identity.
“We were actually tracking that story back in 2017, before we even approached Netflix to do this series,” Meurer said of the Brooks case. Among the details of the case that caught the producers’ eye was the fact that Brooks’ family found his body in the same area police had already searched multiple times. It was also clear from what details we do know that whatever fate befell Brooks could likely be a hate crime.
And perhaps most importantly, this case just feels so solvable. Brooks had been at a party right before his death, Meurer pointed out. Somebody out there has to know something. And in what is surely just a mere coincidence, the show’s interest in the case has renewed authorities’ interest as well; just this month the FBI has announced a $100,000 reward for any information that leads to the arrest of Brooks’ murderer. Hopefully this will prove to be one more mystery this series can help solve for good.