Earlier this year, Unsolved Mysteries returned in a radically different form. Despite the show’s inherent kitsch value (and the presence of Stranger Things producer Shawn Levy, who certainly knows the value of 80s nostalgia), this new iteration of the classic series (which ran, on various networks, from 1988 to 2002) shed many of its trappings. Gone was a garrulous host (although the legendary Robert Stack does make a ghostly appearance at the end of each episode’s title sequence), multiple mysteries per episode (the original series had at least four) and the rather impressionistic approach to dramatic reenactments. Instead, 2020’s Unsolved Mysteries focused on a single mystery per episode, with all of the trappings of modern documentary filmmaking (no narration, ominous drone shots, etc.) This new approach was a hit, generating a passionate discussion online and the reopening of at least one case — and now we’re on the cusp of six new mysteries, part of the rebooted shows initial order.
And while that initial batch of episodes was undoubtedly entertaining, they were also uneven (this unevenness is definitely a keystone of the series, but was much more forgivable when the lame mysteries were only 10 minutes long), with a single classic, unshakable puzzle (the guy who was found in the hotel). This new crop is significantly better, with a few humdingers (also we’re still waiting for a killer supernatural hour). Which episodes should you prioritize, and which should you let linger? Keep reading to find our rankings of the episodes, from the least mysterious to the outright head-scratching.
“Stolen Kids” (Episode 6, Directed by Jessica Dimmock)
In 1989, two children were taken from the same Harlem playground. They were eerily similar cases, but the police didn’t turn up any viable leads. The episode chats the experiences of the two families and the outrage and frustration that followed. It’s also noteworthy since it is one of two episodes in this batch that explore mysteries in the Black community. This episode also incorporates the story of Carlina White, a woman who was reunited with her biological family decades after being abducted. While this scenario offers a glimmer of hope, this is undeniably the most bleak and depressing episode of the season, which is really saying something. Hopefully this will get people talking about the cases again, which could lead to tips being called in and arrests being made. But as of now, it’s just a series of haunting, horrible crimes.
“Death Row Fugitive” (Episode 3, Directed by Robert M. Wise and Clay Jeter)
Upon re-watching the original series (which I have done, several times over, during quarantine), some of the most satisfying episodes included the “Wanted” segments about fugitives on the run from the law. But what made them so satisfying (especially today), were the codas that shared updates — when they were captured, if they were found thanks to a tip from the show, and how many of them died in prison (turns out, that’s how a lot of them went). So this episode, about a truly reprehensible guy named Lester Eubanks who killed a young Black girl in Ohio in the 1960s, feels incomplete because he’s still out there. The circumstances of his escape are pretty unbelievable and best left unspoiled, but this is one of those mysteries you can’t believe is real, although its lack of conclusion feels unsatisfactory. Hopefully we get an update – and soon.
“Tsunami Spirits” (Episode 4, Directed by Clay Jeter)
When the first batch of these new episodes premiered, producer Terry Dunn Meurer promised that, when the show returned (around Halloween, no less), there would be a ghost episode but that it would be a very different ghost episode than the ones that had typically defined the show. (Spoiler alert: those episodes rule, especially if they involve Old West ghosts.) And she was not kidding. This mystery, one of two international episodes in this batch, explores the community of Ishinomaki, which was hit horribly by the Japanese earthquake and tsunami in 2011 (they lost more than 20,000 people). Following the devastation, inhabitants complained of seeing ghosts, including a taxicab driver who claims that he would have ghost passengers. While the story itself is pretty creepy and the footage of the destruction has a raw, elemental power, but the mixture of two things (real life tragedy and supernatural story) occasionally prove awkward and potentially insensitive. The best moments of this episode have a haunting, lyrical quality and the illumination of the Japanese’s culture relationship to ghosts is endlessly fascinating.
“Lady in the Lake” (Episode 5, Directed by Skye Borgman)
This one is pretty weird. JoAnn Romain disappeared one night, her car discovered outside of her church in Grosse Pointe Farms, Michigan. Police suspected suicide — that she’d abandoned her vehicle and walked into a nearby, partially frozen lake, drowning herself. But after searching the lake, police came back empty-handed. Several days later, she was discovered in the lake, although the events surrounding how she wound up there remain shrouded in mystery. What makes this installment particularly riveting is that you hear from JoAnn’s family, who have their own ideas about what happened to her mother (and even propose potential suspects), which only deepens the confusion about what happened. And the actual details certainly don’t clarify anything, like the amount of water she’d have to drown in and the temperature of said water. (You can practically feel the wind coming across the icy lake while watching; wear an extra sweatshirt.) What makes this hour so compelling is that each potential answer just raises more questions. It’ll stay with you.
“Death in Oslo” (Episode 2, Directed by Robert M. Wise)
This batch’s second international episode is truly one of the most mysterious cases the show has ever detailed. In this installment, a woman checks into a luxury Norwegian hotel, and is later discovered dead in her hotel room. But who is this woman? The name she signed in with was a fake name and for some reason the hotel didn’t require her to leave a credit card. Additionally, all of the clothes in her room had the labels snipped out and she had a briefcase filled with unspent bullets. In all of the years since this murder (or suicide?) happened, nobody has come forward to identify her or even ask to see her body, and much of the story in this episode is presented by an intrepid newspaper reporter who picked up the crime years later. Seriously – who was this woman? And what really happened to her?
“Washington Insider Murder” (Episode 1, Directed by Don Argott)
John “Jack” Wheeler was once a powerful player in Washington, D.C. A Vietnam veteran, he helped make the Vietnam Memorial a reality and was a presidential aid to Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. And then, one day, in late 2010, his body was found in a landfill. Police ruled the case a homicide but nobody was arrested and no leads followed up on. What makes this case significantly creepier is that shortly before his death, Wheeler could be seen on a number of security cameras, wandering around, seemingly disoriented and looking disheveled. This episode utilizes those videos, which are incredibly eerie, along with conversations with his family members and friends. One intriguing lead was a local housing project that Wheeler and his wife were attempting to stop; his Blackberry was later found near the project alongside a small fire. Does this have anything to do with his death? There’s something deeply resonant and profound about someone who had everything – a wonderful career, a family that loved him – taken away for reasons nobody is able to articulate. And the fact that, almost 10 years later, nothing new has been discovered, makes it particularly unnerving. Keep the light on while watching this one.
All episodes of the new Unsolved Mysteries are available on October 19 on Netflix.