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Netflix's Unsolved Mysteries reboot sucked me in from the first minute

Commentary: The gripping new show does the old Robert Stack version proud, and with clues posted online, every viewer can get involved.

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Unsolved Mysteries is back, with new episodes now streaming on Netflix.
Video screenshot by Leslie Katz/CNET

I watched a lot of TV in the 1970s, '80s and '90s. A LOT of TV. I even co-wrote two books highlighting the shows and trends of those decades. And I have to say, most of the shows that ate up my time back then are best left to memory. For every awesome show like Mystery Science Theater 3000, there were a lot more like Manimal

That's why I was wary of Netflix's reboot of true-crime show Unsolved Mysteries, which I loved back in the day. Sometimes fond TV memories are best left in the past, you know? I for one did NOT need a Melrose Place remake with Ashlee Simpson, not that anyone asked me. 

But I'm here to say the Unsolved Mysteries reboot sucked me in from the first minute. While I hesitate to say it's better than the Robert Stack original, it's that rare remake that uses all the improvements made in television since its first run to evolve into a fresh, modern and fascinating version of its old self. The interviews are longer and more in-depth. The re-enactments are judiciously used and aren't cheesy. The cases are well-chosen and get plenty of time. If you found yourself sucked into the podcast Serial, you've found your summer TV obsession.

The original Unsolved Mysteries ran from 1988-1999 on various networks, and was brought back twice in the 2000s. Actors (including, once, a young Matthew McConaughey) reenacted cold cases and urged viewers with any knowledge to help solve the mysteries. The original version also threw in the occasional freaky UFO or ghost story, maybe just to remind you you weren't watching PBS. As a kid, sitting in my parents' Minnesota farmhouse, I was fascinated.

The first six episodes of the current Unsolved Mysteries reboot became available July 1, with six more to come. The new show is being overseen by executive producer Shawn Levy of Stranger Things fame, in association with the original production company for Unsolved Mysteries, Cosgrove-Meurer Productions. Producers Terry Dunn Meurer and John Cosgrove, who created the show, are involved with the new reboot, and their 1980s baby is in good hands.

There's no host, and that's just fine -- the late, great Robert Stack's powerful and unmistakable voice could never be imitated. Instead, the show is presented like mini documentaries on each case, focusing on only one case per episode, not three like the old show did. That gives the creators plenty of time to dig in to each cold case, and damn if they haven't found some mind-blowing ones. (Some spoilers ahead.)

New batch of mysteries

In the first episode, a likable guy named Rey Rivera vanishes from his Baltimore-area home in 2006, and is eventually found dead in an unused part of a local hotel. But his injuries are odd, his cell phone is unbroken and it seems unlikely a suicidal jump could have landed him in the spot where his body was found. Then there's the bizarre note found taped to his computer, which his wife insists isn't a suicide note, though it certainly seems to show a rambling thought process, and maybe a man not in his right mind. And then there's his mysterious best friend and employer, who won't talk to the police. All the ingredients for a tantalizing cold case.

The other cases are consistently intriguing too. Hairdresser Patrice Endres disappeared from her salon in 2004, and her body was found nearly two years later. Alonzo Brooks was last seen at a party in rural Kansas, also in 2004, and his body was found nearby a month later. Young mother Lena Chapin went missing in 2006, shortly after she implicated her own mom in the murder of the mom's ex-husband. In Unsolved Mysteries, families are not always like the Waltons.

The show even goes international. For an episode that's almost entirely in French with English subtitles, a noble family is murdered, apparently by a father who won't fess up to money issues, and seems to have either killed himself or gone on the lam.

Only episode 5 felt out of place. Like Unsolved Mysteries occasionally did in the old days, this episode wanders into the world of aliens and the paranormal, focusing on a 1969 UFO. It's the oldest case in the new batch, and definitely the least consequential. I made myself watch the entire episode to be fair to the show, but by the end, I still didn't care about what may or may not have happened in Massachusetts 50 years ago. But I should expect more off-the-wall episodes -- executive producer Terry Dunn Meurer told Variety a ghost story is among the upcoming shows.

Social media detectives

One of the best things about the return of Unsolved Mysteries in this era of social media is the fact that the investigation doesn't end when the episodes do. Netflix has put materials relating to each case on a public drive. The drive includes photos of the evidence, unseen video snippets, interviews and more. Now you can look at that bizarre note Rey Rivera left taped to his computer, or check out a closeup of Patrice Endres' missing wedding ring. I'm hoping Netflix adds more to this, because even though there are numerous clips for each case, nothing I saw there was earth-shattering -- guess if it was, they'd have included it in the episode.

And one of the best things about the new show is that if a case sparks your interest, social media gives you an easy way to dig deep and learn more, as well as keep up on any new discoveries. There's long been a subreddit about Unsolved Mysteries, and the new episodes are being discussed in detail there now. If Facebook is more your thing, there are numerous Facebook groups discussing the rebooted show and its individual cases, as well as other unsolved mysteries from around the world.

Producer Terry Dunn Meurer told USA Today viewers started sending in tips on the various cases within 24 hours of Netflix premiering the new show, specifically about the Brooks, Rivera and Chapin cases. Brooks' case was even reopened by police in June, Dunn Meurer told Variety. And Redditors have come up with a variety of theories about the  murdered French family, a truly haunting episode that put me in mind of 1971's infamous family killer John List, who was eventually caught thanks to another TV show, America's Most Wanted.

Kudos, too, to the show for paying homage to its past in a classy way that doesn't feel like a desperate nostalgia grab. A photo of longtime host Robert Stack, who died in 2003, floats like a benevolent ghost through the opening credits, and the memorable and spine-chilling theme music is updated but still recognizable.

Like many, I fell headlong down the Tiger King rabbit hole in April, when a quarantined world discovered Joe Exotic and his menagerie of messed-up pals. And like Tiger King, Unsolved Mysteries instantly soared to the top of Netflix's most-watched list upon release. 

Unsolved Mysteries is another perfect show for those of us spending most of our time at home due to the coronavirus outbreak. Businesses in my region may still be closed, jobs and stocks may be uncertain, but leave it to Netflix to remind us that somebody out there always has it worse -- with the added benefit that ordinary viewers might be able to turn detective and help a grieving family get justice. 

I still don't know about that UFO episode, but E.T., if you're watching, phone home and explain what your 1960s cousins were up to.

The remaining six Unsolved Mysteries episodes will premiere on Netflix later in 2020.