There’s no denying the irresistible pull that Unsolved Mysteries exerts. This most popular of all the network reality shows has, in its crisp, relentless, slightly weird way, earned its frequent place in the Nielsen ratings’ top 10. Occupying a position somewhere between a legitimate news show and the most excitable tabloid television, Unsolved Mysteries draws you into its unsolved mysteries whether you want to go along or not.
”Authorities need your help to track down a notorious bank robber,” rumbled urgent Unsolved host Robert Stack on a recent edition, and who could resist a request from the man who played FBI great Eliot Ness on The Untouchables? Stack proceeded to tell us about a thief known as ”The Satchel Bandit” — a pleasingly old-fashioned nickname for a robber who always carried his gun in a small leather bag. At the end of the segment, Unsolved gave us an 800 number to call if we had any leads on his whereabouts. I pressed my nose to the TV screen to study the police sketches of this lawbreaker, but alas, I could not help the authorities as Mr. Stack had commanded — never saw this guy before in my life.
But other viewers are far more helpful than I; since its debut in 1987, Unsolved Mysteries has reportedly helped solve one out of four of the cases it has presented. This is a fairly amazing statistic, and one that gives Unsolved a value beyond mere entertainment; I mean, we all love Northern Exposure, but how many criminals has it been responsible for catching?
On the other hand, Northern Exposure is rather better acted than Unsolved. In any given segment, Unsolved switches back and forth, one minute showing us the real person reenacting his or her role in a dangerous situation or as a witness or victim of a crime, the next minute using (unknown) actors to give an added dimension to a particularly dramatic moment in the story being told. ”Whenever possible, the actual family members and police officers have participated in re-creating the events,” runs a printed disclaimer at the start of each Unsolved. ”What you are about to see is not a news broadcast.”
No kiddin’. In the ”Satchel Bandit” segment, the crime reenactments, done mostly by actors, were notable for their awkward staginess. This was also true of another segment on the same show, in which a reporter investigated a serial killer who murdered prostitutes who worked in truck stops in Ohio. If the halting dialogue and stiff line readings by both the real people and the actors were presented in, say, Murder, She Wrote, no one would ever tune in.
But there’s a level on which this air of patent phoniness actually works in Unsolved’s favor, as a measure of the series’ earnest authenticity: We get the idea that to the best of the producers’ knowledge, this is what was said and done in any given situation, and Unsolved is just trying to reproduce the events with accurate care.
Where Unsolved shades over into the unhinged is during its regular segment entitled ”The Unexplained.” Stack earlier this year introduced a typical edition of ”The Unexplained” by saying, ”Today, most of us take UFO sightings for granted.” We do? ”The Unexplained” is sort of a TV version of ”Ripley’s Believe It or Not!,” presenting, in this installment, the story of a Virginia radio reporter who saw ”four disc shapes” in the night sky and was convinced they were UFOs. The reenactment of this made the discs look as boldly flying-saucerish as anything in the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Watching and believing Unsolved, you’d be convinced that UFOs were among us; this mystery looked anything but unsolved.
I admit that I came to Unsolved ready to label it cynical and manipulative, but the show is basically so good-hearted — and regularly softhearted — that it’s impossible to dislike. An episode last March told a lengthy, lurid tale of a woman who got mixed up in a love affair with an alleged con man who, when the relationship turned sour, reportedly tried to frame the woman for crimes she didn’t commit, then conspired to have her shot, leaving her paralyzed from the waist down.
It was gruesome stuff, exploiting a violent tragedy during what we used to call the prime-time family hour. But Unsolved managed to put a positive spin on the story: By the report’s end, we were told that the woman was doing well and was now happily married to her physical therapist. The unsolved mystery? The whereabouts of the abusive lout she used to date. He’s based in Switzerland, Stack told us, and we should call that 800 number if we see him. I don’t get to Switzerland that often, so I didn’t study the guy’s mug shot that closely.
To me, watching Unsolved Mysteries is like playing the lottery. I’ll do it occasionally, even though I know it’s basically a waste of time, because someday, who knows, I might hit the jackpot: bring a criminal to justice, , verify the existence of UFOs, solve a mystery, and thrill to the sound of Robert Stack saying my name in his authoritative bark. B-