This Unsolved Mysteries Volume 2 review contains spoilers.
Netflix’s Unsolved Mysteries Volume 2 comes back even more serious than the first volume. The theme music may have a new arrangement which forebodes horrifying tales, but the telling has become even further removed from the overwrought drama of the original series which aired from 1987 to 2010. I have to admit, I miss the cheese of the gravelly melodrama which host Robert Stack exposed from under his raincoat. The crimes are exactly as promised, they are mysterious and open. But the Netflix series is almost too forensic in its unraveling, and it doesn’t even rely too much on the science itself.
The six new episodes profile fantastically mysterious happenings and tragic events in the hope a viewer holds the key to solving the cases. Viewers have also been calling tips into the Unsolved.com website. The first volume episode investigating the death of Alonzo Brooks prompted the FBI to reevaluate the incident as a hate crime. The new version of the investigative series saw a major improvement in production quality, but at the cost of its individuality. The reenactments are back, though muted, in Volume 2. We see agents flashing badges, couples hugging each other for comfort, and footsteps over crime scenes mixed with photos from the police files. The first volume included an unlikely suicide, the multiple disappearances of people connected to crime victims and the aftermath of a UFO sighting in Berkshire County, Mass.
Directed by Don Argott, the opening episode of Unsolved Mysteries Volume 2, “Washington Insider Murder,” has everything going for it. It has a slain hero, former White House aide John ‘Jack’ Wheeler, whose commitment to service which started as a soldier in the Vietnam War, culminated in his becoming chairman of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. It’s got a very cool and disquieting crime scene, a Delaware landfill where the very idea of obtaining forensic evidence would be laughable if it weren’t so sad. The episode has conspiracy theories, and a very sad family, Wheeler’s wife and daughter, still reeling a decade later from the loss and the uncertainty. But it never quite makes the case for drama.
Police ruled Wheeler’s death a homicide, the investigation was at a high-level. The victim worked with three presidential administrations, was a senior planner for Amtrak, and served on the Securities and Exchange Commission while hiding his own bipolar disorder. His murder remains unsolved to this day. Unsolved Mysteries follows his path through the surveillance of modern-day technology. Wheeler was spotted on security camera footage the night before he died. Investigators and family members watch as he wanders through office buildings looking uncharacteristically disheveled and agitated. Like many of the installments, the technology is not without its glitches, and most cases focus on at least one example of unaccounted time in the timeline.
Unsolved Mysteries doesn’t dwell on the systemic problems of investigations and investigative bodies. It is not concerned with righting wrongful convictions. It is about the horror stories of unanswered questions. One episode can be put off, at least partially, to a break in police procedure: a convict who slipped away through a crack in the paperwork. “Death Row Fugitive,” directed by Robert M. Wise and Clay Jeter, centers on repeat sexual offender Lester Eubanks. He confessed to killing a 14-year-old girl in Mansfield, Ohio, in the 1960s, and was sentenced to death. When the death penalty was abolished in 1972, he became part of a work program where he could leave prison grounds. He escaped in 1973, while on a temporary furlough to go Christmas shopping.
The twist in this case is that, twenty years after the escape, an investigator just happens to look up the old case to see if there’s an update and finds the crime archives have nothing in them. The files were never fully processed. He makes up for lost time, getting the case on America’s Most Wanted, but after so much time, the trail is cold and the episode is merely tepid.
The saddest case may be “Stolen Kids,” directed by Jessica Dimmock. Two-year-old Christopher Dansby was snatched from Martin Luther King, Jr. park on Lenox Avenue in Harlem on May 18, 1989. Three months later, one-year-old Shane Walker, disappeared in the same neighborhood. Police suspect the disappearances may lead to a baby-selling ring. There hasn’t been a trace of either Christopher or Shane in nearly 25 years. Unsolved Mysteries treats the cases sensitively, but can’t avoid the underlying sensationalism of the implications.
The first volume went abroad for dark international intrigue, such as the “House of Terror” episode which went to France to cover the Dupont de Ligonnès murders. Volume 2 tracks a case in Brazil, a death in Oslo, Norway, and the tsunami ghosts of Japan.
“Tsunami Spirits,” directed by Clay Jeter, is the most emotionally-told episode. The sheer bewilderment on the faces of the authorities who were doing all the right things is palpable. The 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan killed 15,584 people and left 2,533 missing. The maximum height of the tsunami was 131 feet, we see in a crawl. The footage is riveting, sadly spectacular and devastatingly effective against the narration of a man who was pushed from his office into the flow of the waters. A teary-eyed man tells of uncovering the mud-covered and swollen face of his youngest daughter in the aftermath.
Ishinomaki suffered some of the worst damage of any in Japan. After the one-two punch of an earthquake and floods, the city was hit again by the very ghosts of the people also caught so off-guard. One woman says she doesn’t know what ghosts are supposed to look like, but she is convinced she can pick one out of a lineup. A taxi driver details a disconcerting fare. “Tsunami Spirits” is the most inventive of the episodes, and breaks the established rhythm and tone of the series, but with good effect.
“Death in Oslo,” directed by Robert M. Wise, is a haunting story, and the investigators are emotional during its telling. A security guard checks on a woman locked inside a luxury hotel room. As he knocks, he hears a gunshot. He leaves the hallway to go to the security room on the lower levels, probably to contain himself from the sudden shock. But this opens a crucial missing element, fifteen minutes of unaccounted time when an assassin could have escaped the room. The death is considered an apparent suicide, but on closer observation it becomes apparent not only this could not have been the case, but everything about how she is found reeks of an espionage mission.
This twist, although understated in its presentation, gives the episode just enough suspense to tighten the mystery. The murdered woman checked into the Oslo Plaza Hotel under the name Jennifer Fergate, but it was not her real name, and no one reported her missing. She had 25 rounds of ammunition in her briefcase, the serial numbers of her gun were professionally removed, all identifying tags from her clothing were cut off. An expert ex-spy says this has all the earmarks of a secret intelligence operation, and that phrase itself is just another way of saying “Unsolved Mystery.”
Unsolved Mysteries is a little exploitative. While it is important the families have an outlet to expand their inquiries, the series fetishizes the crimes through obsessive camera work. The viewer begins to worry about the false hope the victims hold on to. While it is true leads are pouring in to their website, it is still a high emotional ante to place on an unsure bet. Unsolved Mysteries relies on this. It lets the viewer go from rubbernecking at an accident to laying odds on a side road. It also turns ordinary citizens into watch dogs.The series has removed the corniness of the original and continues to delve deeper into serious detective work, but this brings it farther in line with the glut of true crime series already on the market, and done better on Netflix itself. Unsolved Mysteries Volume 2 is still finding its footing after moving so far from the first iteration. It is finding a middle ground, but still a little flatfooted.