Unsolved Mysteries has returned. And not a moment too soon.
The pioneering true-crime series originally began as a series of specials back in 1987, hosted by such imposing figures as Raymond Burr, Karl Malden, and Robert Stack. And when it became a full-fledged series a year later, Stack returned as the host and erstwhile narrator, able to inject even more weight and just the right amount of self-awareness, into tales of kidnappings, lost loves, UFO sightings and missing persons (amongst other things). The Stack-led Unsolved Mysteries (with a period where Virginia Madsen was installed as a cohost in an effort to boost ratings) ran until 2002, going from NBC to CBS to Lifetime. In 2008, there was a basic cable revival (this time hosted by Dennis Farina), but most of the segments were repackaged from the earlier episodes and it didn’t last long.
Now, Unsolved Mysteries is back, with six spine-tingling new mysteries, a bold new format, a new streaming home (Netflix!), and, as always, a complete lack of answers. (Don’t worry, the theme song and title font is mostly unchanged.)
We got on the phone with Terry Dunn Meurer, a co-creator of the original show who has returned for the new series, and we discuss the lack of a host, the approach to reenactments, Robert Stack’s surprising cameo, and whether or not that call center is real. (This time she worked with producer Shawn Levy and the team behind Stranger Things, and it’s easy to see the show’s influence on that Netflix smash.)
And just as a heads-up, we talk about a pair of episodes from the new season — one involves a man who killed his entire family in France and disappeared and another where a businessman was found in a hotel annex. It looked like the man had fallen from the sky, but how? These are two of the weirder episodes this season. Like any good Unsolved Mysteries mystery, it claws around inside your brain long after you’ve watched it. Hopefully a tip will be coming in, very soon.
Collider: What was the impetus for this new Unsolved Mysteries?
DUNN MEURER: Well, ever since the original series went off the air, we’ve been hoping to get it back on. There are so many mysteries to solve, and it just continued to evolve every day. It’s a brand that we have loved and nurtured for all these years. We’ve been hoping to get the series back on. I think Netflix and its ability to stream internationally is perfect for our show because in the original episodes, some of the cases were solved, some fugitives were found internationally. There will be leads that we’re sure will come from international sources, so we’re thrilled to have the streaming ability for the franchise.
That’s interesting because I was going to ask what informed the cases that you chose for the new series? There’s a case in France in this new series that feels very different.
DUNN MEURER: We were looking for cases set internationally, yes. So, July 1, we premiere the first 6 episodes. And then sometime later in 2020, the second 6 will premiere, and there are actually two international cases in that grouping. We are trying to reach an international audience and solve international cases, especially the Xavier Dupont de Ligonnès [a man accused of killing his wife, his four children, and their two dogs in France] case, which is in the July 1 episodes. If he is alive, he is somewhere in the world laying low. We talk in the episode that he has just one of those faces that, he is just kind of the guy next door. You’d never stop and think that he was wanted in France for questioning in this case. We’re just hoping that someone will recognize him and come forward.
Was there ever thought of doing a more retro approach to it? Shawn Levy and the Stranger Things team are helping produce this season and they obviously have made a cottage industry out of mining the 80s for all of its kitsch value.
DUNN MEURER: I think we wanted to freshen the series and do a deeper dive into the stories. We wanted to let the people whose mysteries these are tell more of their stories. It was a tough decision to not have a host. We missed Bob Stack and the gravitas that he brought to the series so tremendously. But we just decided it would be very hard to fill his shoes and he was such a strong storyteller, and we just decided that it feels like a more contemporary approach. What this world’s audiences are looking for is a deeper dive in hearing from the actual participants as the storytellers of the episode.
But there is a Robert Stack cameo. Can we talk about that?
DUNN MEURER: Oh yes, there’s a kind of ghostly image of him during the titles. We couldn’t not pay our respects to Bob. He’s just as iconic as the theme. And the theme was one of the things that we were not going to let go of. The theme is the one thing that I think everyone comments about: “Oh, I just remember I was so creeped out by that theme.” Or: “Every time I heard the music, I got a chill up my spine.” We got that a lot.
I think that the “update” music is even creepier – it’s got weird dissonance. And what’s interesting watching the show now is that there’s a lot more of those updates, because you guys have gone back and added stuff to the original show as cases are solved.
DUNN MEURER: We update the original shows probably a couple of times a year. We always have at least a half-a-dozen to a dozen updates. The original cases are still getting solved. There was just one that I think is about to get solved that we just heard about a couple of months ago — law enforcement reached out to us about it. It’s a living, breathing brand, is the way I tend to describe it. And it has been ever since it began back in 1987. It caught us all by surprise. I remember being concerned about whether or not the audience will want to see four stories in one episode about cases that have no endings. And it turned out that we were able to create endings for these stories. That has been so gratifying. That’s been the best part of this. Telling mystery stories, when I look back on it now, has become my life’s work. It’s been the most gratifying part of my career.
Well, I mean, is there, is there that kind of latitude with the Netflix technology to update these episodes as well?
DUNN MEURER: Yes, absolutely. We actually just made a couple of changes in the Alonzo Brooks case. We had already delivered that episode and we didn’t know that the FBI was willing to take tips that came in and also that they were offering a $100,000 reward. So we were able to go in and change the what we call the “call to action” card at the end, so that we could put the FBI contact information up there, as well as unsolved.com. Some people are reticent to send tips to law enforcement and so that’s why we always put unsolved.com up because we take those tips and we pass them on. It’s kind of a clearinghouse for any tips that come in through the show as well.
Was the call center of the original show actually real?
DUNN MEURER: Oh yeah. It was absolutely real. Every week, usually Wednesday night at eight o’clock for a while, we’d have these 20 to 40 people sitting at the phones. The show would broadcast at eight o’clock and the phones would start ringing. And that was very real. Law enforcement for the particular case that was airing that night would usually be there. We would fly them in. And if one of the operators got what they thought was a hot tip, they would raise a paddle and the law enforcement person would run over and hop on a headset and try and vet the tip. And then if you saw a cluster, you’d see a whole bunch of paddles come up at once. And they were all from some small town in Ohio, you go, okay, this one’s going to get solved because there would be half a dozen people calling. That was the long answer. The short answer is yes, it was.
Please, please tell me that you put that amazing neon sign in your house somewhere. I hope it’s in your garage.
DUNN MEURER: There are so many actual things like that … I have very little of that memorabilia. It’s frustrating. I should have been more thoughtful about that.
One of my favorite aspects of the old show was when there would be an entire episode themed around a specific holiday, whether it was Easter or Halloween or Christmas. Have you talked about doing special episodes like that for the new show?
DUNN MEURER: We haven’t. It’s harder to theme these episodes because we try and have each of them be very, very different from the next. Because we did four stories per episode, we could mix and match them and create a more of a holiday mystery episode or a mysterious creatures episode. But we don’t have that latitude right now because each of the episodes is 40-to 50-minutes long. And it’s one story.
Was it always your intent to bring it back and focus on one story per episode? Or did you ever think that we, that you would mix and match them again?
DUNN MEURER: I’m thrilled that Unsolved Mysteries is coming back. And one episode allows us to do a much deeper dive into the details. It was a challenge in the original episodes to try and tell a very multidimensional story in a 10, 12, 15-minute time span. That’s why it was so helpful to have Bob’s narration, because he could help transition one scene to the next and he could provide some of that information. But when we’re relying on the interviews of the people in the mystery, it’s more of a challenge to do multiple [stories].
What your approach to the reenactments was this time? The older episodes’ reenactments were more impressionistic, and these are much more straightforward. Can you talk about that decision?
DUNN MEURER: I think we wanted to update the reenactment portion. There were times when we felt that seeing the faces of an actor who’s portraying somebody who’s being interviewed in the cut, the audience is comparing well, how much do they look like that person really? Or is that person, you know, there was a certain amount of that. We wanted to update the reenactments. We wanted them to be as creepy as possible and create premium content for Netflix. It feels like the old reenactment style was a little bit more dated and you wanted to update that. And there was more of a documentary approach to the Netflix series. The original episodes were interview, re-enactment and interview, reenactment. And now we have a lot more B-roll scenes. We try and develop the characters more thoroughly than we did in the original series. So you really get to know these people who these mysteries are about.
Was there ever talk of including the categories this time?
DUNN MEURER: Yes, because they worked as signposts. So you knew that, okay, this, the case coming up, this is a missing person, or this is a UFO case, this is a treasure case. I think those signposts are helpful. It’s interesting that you mentioned that. That was an initial discussion and then somehow it just got dropped. But I think that’s always been helpful.
Sci-med was always my favorite one. Just seeing those words at the beginning was ominous.
DUNN MEURER: I know, those were really interesting mysteries too. I remember one about bee-stings. We called it dusting healing where people who had MS could actually be stung by bees and that would help them with their symptoms. I mean, the miracle cases, there’s so many different categories of mysteries. Um, that’s, that’s probably, that’s why having, being able to do multiple stories within an episode is gratifying because you can tell more, tell more stories, right? So the trade-off is a deep dive into a story or multiple mysteries where you skim the surface, but the decision to make,
Do you find yourself having theories about the answers to some of these cases?
DUNN MEURER: Oh, yes.
Okay. Well, then I have to ask you — what’s with the guy in the hotel?
DUNN MEURER: We’ve produced over 1300 mysteries and I think the Ray Rivera case is one of the most mysterious we’ve ever profiled. Actually that one boggles my mind. I was up on that roof. And just as we say, in the peak to get to that roof as a challenge, you would have to know how to get there. You’d have to have somebody to guide you up there. And when you stand there and you see where he landed and try to imagine where he could have come off that roof, it’s just impossible. It’s mindboggling. There was actually a theory, a couple of people we spoke to who talked about, well, maybe he was dropped from a helicopter. That goes to show you, when you start looking for solutions to that mystery, by saying somebody was dropped in this densely urban area from a helicopter, you know that it’s a mysterious case. There’s just no solution. And why did Ray run out? Who was on the other end of that phone? So we want to get ahold of who made that phone call to Ray that got him out of that house. That’s who we’re looking for.
What do you think the legacy of Unsolved Mysteries is?
DUNN MEURER: Well, we hope that Unsolved Mysteries will continue to solve mysteries forever. There will always be new mysteries to solve. And we would just like to be a part of the closure that we can bring to people’s lives and law enforcement’s lives. It is important. And we’d like to continue the continue to do that.
The first batch of new Unsolved Mysteries airs on Netflix on Wednesday, July 1.