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Why Unsolved Mysteries works

by Albert Lanier

The New York Times in a June 2020 article had a subtitle that called it “sensationalistic, a little sleazy and often a lot of fun.”

The Los Angeles Times in a July 2020 piece said it was “sometimes corny.”

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Yet despite these rather inaccurate 21st-century appraisals from two of the biggest newspapers in the country, the television series Unsolved Mysteries continues to have a presence both on its original medium of broadcast TV and on the newer medium of the internet on YouTube.

The original Unsolved Mysteries series is celebrating its 35th anniversary in October of 2023 with a new hour-long documentary “Unsolved Mysteries: Behind the Legacy” that had its premiere screening in Austin, Texas earlier in the month and has since been released on streaming services and online.

Created and produced by documentary filmmakers Terry Dunn Meurer and John Cosgrove, Unsolved Mysteries was different from every other program on the prime-time programming schedule: It was a show that examined different unsolved and unresolved cases.

Admittedly Unsolved Mysteries was not the first show to deal with real-life events. TV series like In Search Of which ran in the 1970s and was hosted by Leonard Nimoy as well as America’s Most Wanted which lasted through the 1990s also dealt with true-life subject matter.

However, America’s Most Wanted was entirely and solely a true crime show. In Search Of dealt largely with historical and paranormal issues and only did one subject per episode.

The difference with Unsolved Mysteries was that under the rubric of mysteries, the series tackled a variety of different kinds of cases from criminals and escaped fugitives to people seeking lost relatives or loved ones to UFO sightings, paranormal events, and missing individuals.


The show’s origins stem from a Network TV special that Meurer and Cosgrove did in 1985 hosted by actors David Birney and Meredith Baxter called Missing: Have You Seen This Person?

Missing was a rare piece of programming at the time: An examination of missing people in America, a problem then as now (reportedly about 600,000 people are estimated to go missing every year in the US).

After the original Missing special aired and went on to be nominated for an Emmy award, a couple of more specials were produced.

Cosgrove and Meurer then went on to produce and shoot Unsolved Mysteries initially as a series of one-off specials.

Raymond Burr, the star of the classic hit tv show Perry Mason, hosted the pilot and first Unsolved Mysteries special. Movie and TV actor Karl Malden then hosted a couple more subsequent specials.

Finally, Robert Stack, who played famed Treasury agent Elliot Ness on the TV series The Untouchables, stepped in to host four more Unsolved specials.

The Unsolved Mystery specials attracted enough viewer attention and rating and audience share that the NBC network greenlit a full series and slate of episodes with Robert Stack as the new show’s host.

In October 1988, Unsolved Mysteries debuted. With its varied mix of different kinds of mysteries, the show went on to run for nine seasons on NBC usually in the top 20 of ratings and sometimes in the top 10. Unsolved then spent two seasons on CBS before moving on to cable on the Lifetime Channel for at least a season before ending its run. Stack died in 2003 after the show concluded production.

The show had a reboot in 2008 on the cable Spike channel with actor and ex-cop Dennis Farina as host but largely used re-edited segments from the mostly 11 seasons of the Network run of Unsolved. This incarnation lasted until 2010.


It is at first glance easy to see the obvious reasons for Unsolved’s success. The traditional reasons given are the program’s rather interactive nature in a pre-internet America as viewers could call a 1 800 number placed on-screen during each episode if they had tips, information, or any knowledge about the cases profiled in a given night’s episode.

Unlike any other series on network television in the 1980s and 1990s, viewers could theoretically and in some cases have an impact on the show by calling in information to a call center where operators were on duty during nights when the episodes aired Certainly dozens of cases were solved thanks to alert members of the audience.

While the involvement of the audience may be a factor in the attention the show received, it is not the reason the show worked as a television series.

I would argue the show’s success stems from these components:

I. Structure and Variety: Unsolved consisted of a news format type structure but instead you got cases for segments. The varied types of mysteries then served as a potent lure for viewers. So since Unsolved consisted of 4-5 segments per episode often with an update on previous cases, you could have an A Block showcasing the story of a wanted bank robber followed by a B Block dealing with a UFO sighting then a C Block dealing with lost loves and then maybe a D block profiling a missing person. The show thus never stopped being interesting to viewers. There was always something different around the corner coming up.

II. Authenticity: Directors and crews shot segments of Unsolved Mysteries in the locales and often in exact areas where cases happened. Thus if a murder took place in Nebraska a con artist swindled individuals in Alabama or an older man had disappeared in California, Unsolved traveled to the location to film both interviews with witnesses and loved ones and case reenactments. This fidelity created a documentary-level reality to the cases shown that could never be captured if solely shot on soundstages or sets far from the places the events occurred

III. Photography and Music: Much has been stated about the show’s theme music but the use of music during numerous scenes to set the mood in varied episodes. The right haunting melodies often helped to establish the spooky, eerie, and sometimes outright scary vibes associated with the show. Also Unsolved early use of film particularly 16 mm in shooting episodes. Combined with a more muted and atmospheric approach to lighting, this mixture produced both a documentary-type mise en scene for the show and then more of a slight feature film look as seasons progressed.

Robert Stack once said in an interview with the LA Times during his time hosting the show “We’re balancing two needs here. We’re trying to produce theater and we’re looking to do a public service.”

Unsolved Mysteries was then unlike any other show on TV in that it was a Hollywood recreation of events that was nonetheless rooted in reality but an uneasy reality at times.

Meurer best describes what the original Unsolved Mysteries and its recent Netflix Reboot which has been producing new cases and episodes since 2020 is all about.

“We’re telling stories that have a beginning and a middle but no end” she observed in one interview.

And it is the sad, sometimes bittersweet ambiguity that pervades so many real-life cold cases that made and sometimes makes Unsolved Mysteries such an effective show.

From “That is The Week That Is” Albert Laniers Substack

Republished with permission


Albert Lanier can be reached at


Unsolved Mysteries Official Site

Full Episode on YouTube

Unsolved LinkTree

Unsolved Mysteries IMDB Episode list

Original Series Streams

N.Y. Times

L.A. Times

Top 10 TV Shows for 1987-1988
(When Unsolved Mysteries was first introduced to America)


I mentioned a piece of this T.V. show artifact I recently acquired.

After some research, I discovered that I own a piece of TV history connected to Unsolved Mysteries. A 3/4 inch Video Tape which has a cue sheet and is marked indicating the recording is for Unsolved Mysteries and has The Zapruder Film
and enhancements made for the show on it.

The current preserved episodes of the show do not contain an episode that featured the JFK Assassination.

2 episodes did have segments examining the RFK assassination
(S02 E019 + S14 E057).

After careful viewing, it appears as though they did not include footage of it
when assembling shows related to his brother’s murder and the mystery of Scott
Enyart and the photos he took on June 5, 1968.

I suspect this copy was either used in the original broadcast that is no longer preserved or was used in another episode.

Ultimately, it may be best understood as an unused piece of production that could have been deemed too graphic or otherwise undesirable for a carefully crafted program. At some point

I hope to have the tape examined and copied to a digital medium.

Listen to “The Ochelli Effect 12-6-2023 Albert Lanier” on Spreaker.