If you’ve never seen The Staircase, the eight-part documentary about accused wife-murderer Michael Peterson, you’ve got to watch it tonight on the Sundance Channel. It’s that rare long documentary about a tabloid crime that becomes a deep exploration of death, the justice system, and the very process of making a documentary film.
As directed by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, The Staircase explores the defense-team strategy in the case of Michael Peterson, accused of killing his wife, Kathleen, in 2001, found dead in a pool of her own blood at the foot of a staircase in the Petersons’ home. Granted extraordinary access to the Peterson family (defendant Michael as well as his adult children and step-children), Peterson’s defense lawyers, and the process of gathering evidence in a murder case, the filmmakers built a mesmerizing story in which the viewer is virtually invited to become an investigator and a lawyer as well. As the hour-long episodes glide by, you cannot help but start muttering, “Why aren’t the lawyers emphasizing this? How can Peterson possibly justify that?”
Peterson comes across initially as a nice, rather befuddled, pipe-smoking suburbanite caught in a terrible tangle. His wife fell down a flight of stairs and died. How could be possibly be a murderer? Why, his children sit behind him in court every day. The guy must be innocent, right?
Well, very quickly, aspects of Peterson’s past, and his not-so-secret double life, emerge, every revelation arriving as a new headache — and a headline; The Staircase is also a canny critique of local- and cable-TV-news reporting — for the defense team. Jean-Xavier de Lestrade created a film that is always working on a few levels. It works as a documentary about how extraneous facts about someone’s life inevitably influences a jury (and the lawyers on both sides, and the judge) in a case that has nothing to do with those facts. And The Staircase also operates as a piece of art that wrests the beauty and agony of life from mundane, cynical, tawdry reality.
The Staircase was named by Gillian Flynn as one of the year’s best TV shows in Entertainment Weekly in 2005. The Sundance Channel will re-air all eight original episodes, and then in March, present two new episodes that follow up on the case.
Really, tonight at 10 p.m., who needs Criminal Minds, Hawaii Five-0 and Castle when you’ve got a great true crime to solve?
And if you don’t want to miss any one of those shows, the Sundance Channel is making it easy for you: Watch the first episode now, here.