Entertainment

'Unsolved Mysteries' Returns to Its Outrageous Roots With the Berkshires UFO Episode

Sometimes you just want to hear about a good old-fashioned alien abduction.

unsolved mysteries
Netflix

Ever since it first premiered back in 1987, Unsolved Mysteries has promised a reliably bizarre mix of the unexpected. The often cheesy, always entertaining version of the show, hosted by the deep-voiced actor Robert Stack (who took over narration duties after three initial primetime specials featuring actors Raymond Burr and Karl Madden), proudly showcased a variety of cases, mixing violent crimes, paranormal incidents, unexplained bits of history, and even quasi-heart-warming tales of "Lost Love." And, yes, that occasionally included UFO sightings and other alien encounters.

In many ways, Netflix's reboot of the series is a reinvention of the original, ditching the host, refining the reenactments, focusing more on interviews, and zeroing in on a single case for each episode. (At least they kept the unsettling synth-powered theme music.) Working with Stranger Things producer Shawn Levy's production company, co-creators John Cosgrove and Terry Dunn Meurer embraced what they've referred to as a "pure documentary style," one that's more likely to click with contemporary audiences hooked on true-crime podcasts and HBO documentaries. You won't catch the next Matthew McConaughey making his screen debut in the reboot.

Most of the episodes, especially "Mystery on the Rooftop" and "House of Terror," fall solidly in the true-crime/murder-show genre (and more episodes are on the way), but, thankfully, the producers didn't totally abandon extraterrestrials. While "Berkshires UFO," the episode that focuses on a high number of UFO sightings in Massachusetts on a quiet night in 1969, might at first look and feel like a drastic tonal shift from the more conventional true-crime episodes of this season, especially for younger viewers unfamiliar with the topics covered in the original, it provides a necessary connection to the show's otherworldly past.

unsolved mysteries
Netflix

For UFO obsessives -- or fans of The X-Files -- many elements of the specific abduction stories that the episode focuses on will be familiar. Thom Reed, one of the prominently featured interview subjects, also told his story in an episode of History Channel's Ancient Aliens, which includes a more specific description of the creatures themselves, and has made numerous media appearances over the years, spreading the word about the incident. The event itself is a well-known part of American UFO lore, legitimized at the International UFO Museum and Research Center in Roswell, New Mexico, and by the state of Massachusetts itself. Like many of the stories featured on the show, much of the information itself is not entirely new; it's just being delivered to a larger audience via Netflix's enormous global platform. 

But by applying a more restrained, less sensationalized documentary approach, rejecting the often garish computer-generated imagery of shows like Ancient Aliens, director Marcus A. Clarke, who also helmed the opening episode about the death of Rey Rivera, brings a touch of gravitas to the narrative. Similarly, the decision to feature interviews with the police, who have no record of reports filed during the night of the incident, and a local newspaper publisher, who finds no mention of it in his archive from the period, displays a willingness to look at the story from a more skeptical perspective. At the same time, those sections also show how stories of alien encounters are often treated with a great degree of incredulity by authority figures, dismissed by the official record and passed down through less traditional forms of media.  

The less judgmental, more empathetic tone of the episode is perhaps reflective of a subtle shift in the way stories about possible UFO encounters are presented in the mainstream media. As one of the interview subjects in the episode points out, the New York Times has reported on a situation involving Navy pilots encountering "strange objects" in the sky. The stories arrive with all the necessary caveats, including quotes from skeptical experts, but the headlines are framed in a way that often makes them irresistible to anyone with a passing interest in UFOs. (A recent piece in Wired criticized the "thinly-sourced and slanted reporting" of many of these stories and asked "Will The New York Times Ever Stop Reporting on UFOs?") In some ways, the world is finally catching up with the unapologetically out-there sensibility of Unsolved Mysteries, making its pop culture comeback feel all but inevitable. 

Need help finding something to watch? Sign up here for our weekly Streamail newsletter to get streaming recommendations delivered straight to your inbox.

Dan Jackson is a senior staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment. He's on Twitter @danielvjackson.