Rey Rivera was a happy man, by all accounts. A newlywed, an aspiring screenwriter, and a devoted brother and son, he was only 32 years old when he mysteriously disappeared and turned up dead at the Belvedere Hotel in Baltimore. What happened to this bright man with his entire future ahead of him? The answer is maybe tied to his association with a friend and business partner, or maybe to an undiagnosed mental illness, or—most fascinatingly—to the Freemasons.
Rivera’s death is one of a handful of new mysteries at the center of Netflix’s Unsolved Mysteries revival. It’s a welcome return from a show that haunted so many of us as children. A series that not only brought strange stories to the surface, but asked the audience to help solve them. The original—hosted by Robert Stack—ran off and on from 1987 to 2002, and Dennis Farina led a reboot from 2008 to 2010. But this return is different; not only because it’s streaming and bingeable, but because it’s a more sleek and streamlined version of the show.
That’s both a good and bad thing. Gone are the silly reenactments that made the original so memorable. This is a more sophisticated version of Unsolved Mysteries, populated by attractive b-roll footage. There’s no host this time around, either, which makes a certain amount of sense. The show failed to capture the same magic without Robert Stack, and no replacement ever felt quite right.
Another major change: In this version, each episode is dedicated to a single mystery, instead of four per hour. This gives the stories a little more room to breathe, but it’s also to the reboot’s detriment. Some episodes—like Rivera’s, and another about UFO sightings in the Berkshires—warrant the full hour. But others simply lack information or leads to fill out the runtime in a compelling way.
Overall, this version of Unsolved Mysteries is crisp and watchable, but it fails to live up to the original’s unique spookiness. There’s a reason those old episodes scared the crap out of us. The re-enactments, the constant repetition of the trademark theme, Stack’s haunting narration, and the mysteries themselves—everything from missing persons to Bigfoot to aliens to ghosts—combined to create a singular series. One that treated every mystery with a similar gravity.
The Berkshire UFO episode briefly recalls the creepiness of the original. There is also one episode that goes international—and tells the terrifying story of a murderous French patriarch on the run—but again, it’s not a refreshing enough departure from the show to separate it from any other crime series you might stumble upon on Netflix. And that’s quite the shame, because we could really use more paranormal stories to even out the flow.
John Cosgrove and Terry Dunn Meurer, who created the original Unsolved Mysteries, are back. They teamed up with Stranger Things executive producer Shawn Levy for the reboot. We have to wonder where the decision to get more serious came from. Was Netflix determined to produce a more sophisticated version of the series to keep things expectedly modern? Or did the producers want to shed the “corny” criticisms often attached to the old show?
It’s hard to say. And who knows—maybe this fancier version of Unsolved Mysteries will work better for younger audiences stumbling onto the show for the first time. Re-enactments are a thing of the past, and probably for good reason. But that doesn’t stop this version of the series from feeling like a more polished ghost of its former self. Still, we’re glad some relics remain, like the ability to call or email in with any leads. Maybe together we’ll uncover the truth behind the very human tragedies—like that of Rey Rivera—that make Unsolved Mysteries what is, and has always been.
Featured Image: Netflix