“Mystery Show” solves mysteries. But did you know that humanity itself is truly the greatest mystery of all? I kind of did know that, and that’s why I find the show so delightful. It’s occasionally riveting and often endearing, and in its first five episodes it unequivocally closes each case. That’s a very strong start.
The show comes from budding podcast empire Gimlet Media, and it’s hosted by frequent This American Life contributor Starlee Kine. (Kine has also written for Vulture.) Each week, the show addresses a new mystery — the only requirement being that the mystery not be solvable by simple Googling. So far the cases have been all over the place: Can you return this elaborate belt buckle to its rightful owner, even though he lost it 30 years ago? What did that bizarre 9/11 vanity license plate mean? How did I rent a video from a store that went out of business the next day? And how tall is Jake Gyllenhaal? No, really?
Kine investigates each topic thoroughly and earnestly, but not always efficiently. There are lots of false starts, dead ends, and plenty of wrong guesses and assumptions, and those make up the bulk of the show. That guy named Bob? Oh, he turned out not to be the Bob involved in the actual mystery at hand, but he was interesting in his own way! In episode two, Kine’s trying to figure out how Britney Spears wound up being photographed carrying a pretty obscure novel, a photo that has fascinated the author of said novel for many years. And yet the highlights of the episode have nothing to do with that, really; it’s two phone calls, one with a bookstore clerk and one with a customer-service rep, that provide the emotional heft of the episode. The bookstore clerk dreams of traveling to Ireland, which she talks about so wistfully she sounds like a Disney princess about to break into her big-wish song. Kine and the customer-service guy talk about feeling unworthy of love and happiness, and how hard it can be to tell yourself that you deserve to have a good life. That doesn’t really answer the Britney Spears question (though that case is closed by the end), but it does contribute to solving the mysteries of the human condition. That’s just, like, bonus sleuthing right there.
The show finds emotional angles on just about everything, and its “everybody has a story” attitude is affirming, humane. What I really like, though, is that “Mystery Show” genuinely does solve what it says it’s going to. Occasionally, someone will suggest that perhaps the resolution won’t live up to the expectation, and therefore everyone might be better off not finding the definitive answer — and this is always met with pushback.
J.J. Abrams and his mystery box convinced pop culture that truly these stories are journeys, not destinations, and you might say you want to know the answer, but don’t you actually love not knowing? Isn’t that the real joy?
Hell no, it is not. Give me answers. Give me closure. It’s not a race; feel free, as a story-crafter, to take as much time as necessary to build a story that has an actual, complete resolution. Establish a conflict, explore why this issue in particular has emotional stakes for the players in your story, add depth and texture through the ideas and passions of supporting characters, and then resolve that conflict, ideally in a way that has surprising resonance with seemingly unrelated aspects of the piece. Sounds easy; it’s hard. The appealing sense of narrative meandering in “Mystery Show” belies how aggressively, refreshingly straightforward the show actually is. Simple structures can still result in rich material. That shouldn’t be so mysterious, but somehow it is.