More than 30 years ago, onetime Eliot Ness stand-in Robert Stack found a way to embellish his legacy in the modern era.
The solution was through a show named Unsolved Mysteries, one of the first reality-based shows of the modern era, mixing scripted plots with true stories. First appearing as a special in 1987, it became a full-fledged series not long after the success of a similar program, America’s Most Wanted on Fox.
But there were some significant differences. While Unsolved focused on its share of crime tales, it also would touch upon softer stories as well. Later shows, like Rescue 911, would do something similar—focusing less on the gory and more on the the potential for a heartwarming story, if only the elements came together.
And there was room for science fiction and history inside its broad concept, too. If it was a mystery that hadn’t been solved yet, they’d cover it.
Despite this, Stack was an on-screen constant during the years he hosted. His brooding was immaculate, helped in no small part by his trench coat and his voice. (This clip does a good job of highlighting how he made literally any line Unsolved-worthy.)
Thanks to Stack, the number is still firmly embedded in my skull: 1-800-876-5353. (The number is no longer active, alas, but it very much qualifies as a weird phone number these days. Give it a call, because it’s pretty wild!)
It was the kind of show that, in the pre-internet era, was perfect for binging, thanks to its constant airings on Lifetime.
And it might even be more interesting in the post-internet era, too. Recently, my wife was watching Unsolved Mysteries on Amazon Prime, and we noticed something fascinating about this long-dormant show, which hasn’t had a new episode in eight years: The mysteries were still being updated!
Could you imagine having a job where all you did all day was update old Unsolved Mysteries episodes, on the off chance that there might be a break in the case, or someone might have gotten out of jail, or a missing person might just be found?
The result of this shift means that watching the show is not the same as it was in 1988. It’s a new experience, one that feels additive, like your favorite show with constantly modernized plots.
Decider writer Josh Sorokach noticed something similar as well about the show.
“These modern updates have propelled the Unsolved Mysteries viewing experience to a whole new level,” he wrote. “It’s like being told you won a brand new car only to discover moments later that there was a clerical error and you’ll actually be receiving two new cars.”
In an era when so many shows have borrowed from its basic idea—Investigation Discovery, as a network, owes a significant debt to the show—it’s fascinating to consider the commitment to the idea, even three decades later, 15 years after Robert Stack’s death.
May clarity continue to remove the fog around these mysteries.