True Crime Tuesdays: Unsolved Mysteries
Helen Archer | On 14, Jul 2020
On Tuesdays, our resident true crime obsessive gets their fix with a documentary film or series. We call it True Crime Tuesdays.
Netflix’s reboot of Unsolved Mysteries – which made its debut in the 1980s and was a regular staple of American television for 16 seasons – has made quite the splash on social media, although not necessarily for the reasons which were intended. While the original format was a showcase of curios – from unexplained phenomena to cases of amnesia – it was more water-cooler TV than a serious invitation to investigate. Now, in the age of social media, viewers are taking it as an opportunity for some serious websleuthing. Be warned – watching this addictive series could lead you down a time-consuming, all-encompassing reddit rabbit hole.
Creators Terry Dunn Meurer and John Cosgrove retake the wheel as producers for the revamp, and are joined by Stranger Things’ Shawn Levy. It was originally presented by the late Robert Stack, whose deep voice, combined with the iconic theme music, has been the stuff of nightmares for a generation. And while this does retain the same, slightly updated, title music – which will doubtless give long-time fans something of a Proustian jolt – there is no presenter emerging from the shadows to ask for viewers’ help. While previously it would feature four mysteries per show, each story now gets its own 45-minute slot, with loved ones, witnesses and law enforcement speaking to an unseen interviewer, in the more modern style of an investigative docuseries. Thankfully, the extended re-enactments have also been dropped, and all but one of the six episodes here start out as missing persons cases. The penultimate episode, which deals with a mass observation of a UFO sighting in 1969 in Massachusetts, is the only outlier, doubtless indicative of the changing interests of the true crime viewer.
The most perplexing case is dealt with in the first episode. Rey Rivera disappeared without a trace in May 2006, and the mystery only deepened when his body was finally discovered, leading to the book An Unexplained Death: The True Story of the Body at the Belvedere by Mikita Brottman, as well as numerous reddit/unsolved postings over the years. Rivera’s wife heads the episode, pointing out the inconsistencies surrounding his death, including a baffling note found taped to his computer, complete with Masonic references.
The second episode features the case of Patrice Endres, who went missing from her hair salon in 2004, and whose body was found some 20 months later. Her son, Pistol Black, discusses the trauma of losing his mother, made worse by the behaviour of his stepfather, Rob. A famous French family annihilation case is looked at in the third episode, while the fourth investigates the disappearance and apparent murder of Alonzo Brooks, who attended a party from which he never returned. The final episode is less a mystery than a furious exposé, which points the finger at Sandy Klemp for the murder of her husband Gary McCullough and her daughter Lena Chapin.
Some of the interviewees do themselves no favours by appearing in the series – Patrice’s husband, for example, immediately rang alarm bells for viewers as he detailed his treatment not only of his stepson in the wake of the disappearance, but also his possessive handling of Patrice’s remains. And yet, deciding not to take part posits its own problems – Rey Rivera’s best friend and boss was an immediate target on twitter due to his silence, not just with programme makers, but with police at the time. The residents of the small town where Alonzo went missing and was subsequently found have also come under the scrutiny of social media users as would-be gumshoes try to figure out whether there was some sort of cover-up after his death.
It’s probably safe to say that in its original format, the producers were not actually expecting any of the crimes – or UFO sightings – to be solved by its viewers, and used that more as a hook to pique interest. Yet now more information is online – including the personal social media presence of some of the people featured – it’s easier than ever to become an armchair detective. While the post-viewing engagement can all seem like part of the “fun” of the programme, it also raises questions about the ethics surrounding such efforts. Some missing persons cases have been helped by sleuthing forums, but there are also less forensic, more knee-jerk investigations going on, involving real people who are seen as the villains of the series. The rights and wrongs of the new approach of Unsolved Mysteries will play out over time, but this certainly seems like something of a pivotal moment for the televisual portrayal of true crime.
Unsolved Mysteries is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.