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My Kind of Copaganda: Unsolved Mysteries Returns

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BmoreArt’s Picks: July 14-20

A little bit gritty, somewhat arty, and fairly carceral, the Netflix reboot of Unsolved Mysteries removes the original’s hammy atmospherics and the spooky-ooky interlocutor Robert Stack but keeps the light appeals to police-procedural worship and vigilantism—because you out there might be able to help solve a mystery after all. Some of this season’s mysteries: Rey Rivera’s body smashed through a roof of a conference room at Baltimore’s Belvedere Hotel—murder or suicide? Why did a handful of people experience lost time in the Berkshires, Massachusetts in 1969—was it a UFO experience? Black Kansan Alonzo Brooks’ body was found in the woods weeks after he attended an all-white house party in 2004 in which racial epithets were thrown around—what happened?

Now that we are all unabashed true-crime ghouls and internet sleuths, it makes sense to bring Unsolved Mysteries back. But instead of the grab bag of terrifying and potentially life-affirming “mysteries” all crammed into an hour, the reboot focuses on one case per episode and dives pretty deep. Take “Mystery On The Rooftop,” the first episode, which Baltimore is talking about a lot lately because it takes place here and look, the story is wild.

In 2006, Rey Rivera, a copywriter for an Agora-adjacent company, Stansberry and Associates, goes missing and eventually his body is found in a building by the Belvedere Hotel, as if he jumped or was thrown. (Mikita Brottman’s excellent 2018 book An Unexplained Death: A True Story of a Body at the Belvedere discursively deals with this case.) The last time Rivera was seen, he left his house in a huff. His best friend, Porter Stansberry, runs the company and won’t talk to anybody about Rivera’s death. Except for the homicide detective—who was taken off the case to work on gang suppression instead (a nice detail that illustrates the problems with contemporary policing)—the cops all think this is obviously a suicide. Freemasons come into play. 

Directed by Black filmmaker Marcus A. Clarke—producer on 2015’s Fresh Dressed and director of The Wizrd, the 2019 documentary on Future—“Mystery On The Rooftop” is one of the season’s strongest episodes (along with the one about aliens and the one about a likely hate crime; both were also directed by Clarke). He builds tension well and brings in some thoughtful downtime and regional specificity to his episodes that belie the parachuting-in necessary to knock these little docs out. 

And Clarke’s episodes are preferable to a lot of true crime podcasts and docu-series which too often have a certain kind of cinematic filibustering to their narrative storytelling, stretching stories to six hours for no good reason beyond indicating to listeners/viewers “this is important… because it is six hours long.” And because the show is about, well, mysteries that are unsolved, you know from the beginning there will be no resolution, avoiding another thing that can be frustrating about a lot of true crime stuff these days: all promise and no delivery. You know you are not going to learn what happened to Rey Rivera because it is kind of up to you to help solve it.

But here’s the thing: Netflix’s Unsolved Mysteries reboot arrives amid a newfound awareness of “copaganda” due to a widespread, heartening, and somewhat inexplicable racial reckoning. So while Gen X-ers, Millennials, and Zoomers are all collectively wrestling with having binged pro-prosecutor procedurals such as Law & Order for half their lives and plenty of parents are wondering how it is that they have plopped their child down in front of Paw Patrol (a children’s cartoon in which literally no problem is too small for an entire militarized emergency response unit of dogs to mobilize and try and fix), the same folks are watching Unsolved Mysteries where every episode swirls around the noble and dedicated cops or sheriffs trying to find out what happened. (Unsolved Mysteries is co-produced by those behind Stranger Things, another compelling show touched by small-town sheriff worship.)

What Andrea DenHoed’s New Republic piece, “The ‘My Favorite Murder’ Problem,” said about that popular true-crime podcast also applies to Unsolved Mysteries: “The show partakes in a long-standing relationship between the crime-story genre and modern law enforcement, in which the stories we tell about crime and how to stop it prop up a system that is often as much about maintaining fantasies of social order as it is about implementing real justice.” This comes with the territory of true crime, though Unsolved Mysteries, like a lot of true crime podcasts popping up right now, brings in some narrative sophistication and self-satisfied tastefulness and that tends to make it easier to ignore all of its law and order. 

Nudist fraud apprehended by police in Unsolved Mysteries season two, episode two

The original Unsolved Mysteries from the ‘80s and ‘90s is currently streaming on Amazon Prime, and you should inhale this strange Reagan-era relic of fear and depravity and old people ASMR. Rey Rivera would have only gotten 10 or so minutes at most on this old Unsolved Mysteries because each episode of the original oscillated wildly between lurid crime stories, trippy alien and ghost stories, and heartwarming segments where viewers could help reunite “lost loves.” As Maggie Serota wrote back in 2017, the show “usually sandwiched a story about a kid or dying under mysterious or horrible circumstances in between such lighter fare as a story about a charming grifter fleecing a Southern socialite, two World War II-era lovers getting reunited after 40 years, and a whimsical ghost haunting a bed and breakfast.” 

The show is great and somewhat subversive. Over 15 seasons, the number of times people complain about police incompetence or governments stonewalling citizenry or clearly lying, adds up into an inarguable case for failing carceral institutions. And the desire to come up with so many “mysteries” each week meant there were some really strange and fascinating ones. Two classics from season two: Rusty Russell, who showed up at a nudist colony in Florida, opened a video rental store nearby (with videotapes he stole from another video store), and scammed a bunch of nudists into buying the tapes after promising to buy them back in 90 days at a higher cost as part of some convoluted tax dodge; “The Gainesville Killers,” about two metalhead teens who traveled between Gainesville, Texas, and Saratoga, Arkansas, murdering four random strangers, is a haunting story in and of itself but the way the reenactments are shot—low lighting, lots of handheld camera—has a special kind of manic and brooding rogue male energy rarely seen on television.

Its intended audience was clearly older people as it reaffirmed their sense that the world was a bad place nowadays (the show fixated on “the Satanic Panic”) and that the bad things from the past (when things were supposedly better) can be undone. There was a lot of TV for the elderly and scared back then, but unlike, say, Rescue 911 or America’s Most Wanted, Unsolved Mysteries had some style to it (the proto-Three Six Mafia music and reenactments often touched with a Cassavetes-like bent) and, by virtue of wading into so many unsolved murders and the occasional UFO sighting, a really strong dose of cynicism towards the police and the government.

Enjoy, but be suspicious, and remember that the failings of law enforcement are why most of these episodes exist and their mysteries persist. 

Robert Stack
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