In the exhaustive canon of true crime docs, podcasts, TV shows, and beyond, there still hasn’t been anything quite like Unsolved Mysteries.
Since its original debut in 1985 as the three-part special Missing: Have You Seen This Person?, Unsolved Mysteries has always focused on just that: low-radar crimes, disappearances, and paranormal happenings that are unexplained and have a clear call to action for viewers, rather than picking over high-profile or legally flawed cases.
“We have always thought of ourselves as a mystery show rather than a true crime show,” says Unsolved Mysteries cocreator and executive producer Terry Dunn Meurer. “People just have a fascination with trying to solve a puzzle.”
Over the course of 11 seasons, Unsolved Mysteries exploded into a cultural phenomenon, with its theme song that’s nightmare fuel for a certain generation (i.e., mine), Robert Stack’s stone-cold narration, and reenactments that rival any TV movie of the week. The original show lived on in syndication, but Meurer was adamant about reviving Unsolved Mysteries for new audiences.
“We had been wanting to reboot the show for many years ever since it went off, but we felt like that the brand probably did need a rest,” Meurer says. “We wanted to freshen it. And we felt like Netflix was a great fit because of global reach.”
Netflix’s reboot of Unsolved Mysteries unpacks 12 new cases, and in addition to more international stories, as befitting Netflix’s global wingspan, there have been some minor adjustments to the original formula.
Meurer explains why the show has changed some of its most iconic features, and the one case in this reboot that has been the most perplexing in her entire career as the show’s producer.
The irreplaceable Robert Stack
Although Robert Stack wasn’t the original host, the actor became the face of Unsolved Mysteries. Not only was he pitch-perfect casting, but having a host introduce and bridge the stories also became part of the show’s structure.
“We had a difficult decision around should we have a host,” Meurer says. “And we decided that Bob was irreplaceable.”
Instead, the reboot gives more of a voice to the people at the center of each case.
“Bob did a lot of the storytelling in the original episodes,” Meurer says. “We embraced letting people tell their own stories. And we’ve tried to develop them more as characters.”
Letting the mystery be
Unsolved Mysteries had anywhere between three to five cases in each episode. However, in the reboot, Meurer wanted every story to fully breathe within their 45-minute episodes.
“The documentary audience wants a deeper dive into some of these stories,” Meurer says. “It was a challenge when we were producing the original series to try and put all the details of a multidimensional story into a 10- or 15-minute story.”
Less acting in reenactments
A cornerstone of any Unsolved Mysteries episode was the reenactments. Those clips meant to help you visualize the action were a special kind of theater in their own right. But, as Meurer mentioned, she wanted the reboot to center more around the real people telling their own stories.
“The original reenactments were shot in more of a literal way, more of a kind of TV-movie way, with dialogue,” she says. “We wanted to freshen that and try and create more of an evocative style of just creepy shots.”
The most baffling case there ever was
What hasn’t changed in the reboot are the fascinating cases Meurer and her team select. Out of all the episodes she’s produced over the years, there’s one in this reboot that troubles her the most.
The episode “Mystery on the Rooftop” breaks down the mysterious death of Rey Rivera, a 32-year-old videographer who moved to Baltimore with his new wife to work at his friend’s financial firm. One night, Rivera received a call that clearly distressed him. He bolted out of his house, drove to the historic Belvedere Hotel, and was eventually found dead next door, having clearly plummeted through the roof from a great height.
“After 1,300 cases over the years, this might be one of the most baffling that I’ve ever seen,” Meurer says. “There are just so many unanswered questions: What caused Rey to rush out of his house that day? Who was that last phone call? I was at the Belvedere Hotel, and I would not have been able to find my way to the roof. How did he get to the roof? Then, when you’re standing on the roof and you see where his body landed, it looks impossible. To the point where there were theories that maybe a helicopter dropped him from the sky. When you start seeing theories that are fairly outlandish like that one, you know that a lot of people have looked at this and just scratched their heads.”
And that’s always what’s made Unsolved Mysteries work.
Despite the fact that certain factors of the show have been tweaked, Unsolved Mysteries still finds a way to take those head-scratching stories and weave them into a compelling narrative that, hopefully, will have a conclusion someday.
“You can tell a story about a case and go through a procedural about how it was solved,” Meurer says. “But when it’s an open case and it’s mysterious—and then it’s solved—there’s something very gratifying and satisfying about that for us as producers, and also for the viewers.”
The Unsolved Mysteries reboot premieres July 1 on Netflix.