“The Staircase” editor Sophie Brunet had a 15-year relationship with Michael Peterson, which lasted from 2002 until 2017. (Photo courtesy of Canal+ and Netflix)
In the past few years, Netflix has been bringing the genre of true crime documentaries such as “Making a Murderer” and “The Keepers” to the forefront of people’s attention. Netflix did this once again with their best one to date, which is an expansion of “The Staircase” true crime documentary from French filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade.
On the night of Dec. 9, 2001, Kathleen Peterson was found dead in her home at the bottom of a staircase. As police investigated the crime, her husband Michael Peterson becomes the prime suspect in her death.
What separates “The Staircase” from most documentaries and helps it stand out is that it is filmed in real time. While there are clips scattered about of interviews with prominent people in the case, such as the prosecutors and the Peterson children, a lot of the series is the documentary crew filming Michael Peterson and his legal team working on their defense.
This style of documentary film work is interesting because not only does the audience learn about the individual and the event in question, but they also get the opportunity to form some sort of attachment with the individual. In the 13-part series that follows Peterson from the night of his wife’s death to his eventual Alford Plea, the audience gets to know Peterson as well as one can know someone on a screen.
By doing this, the audience not only gets to know Peterson, but they are able to get emotionally invested in his plight to prove his innocence. That element, mixed with everything that is being shown being the literal events playing out and not a dramatic recreation, makes the series that much more poignant and memorable.
As the documentary crew is following Peterson around, the series is biased in his favor. The documentary rarely shows what the prosecution might have said or done to counter one of Peterson and his defense team’s points, and there are even a few times where the series seems to ignore the prosecutor’s point because it would be hard to refute. These times are minimal, and the bias does make sense since the crew is primarily following Peterson around, so it is not too big of an issue. The documentary seems to be trying to convince the audience that Peterson is innocent, and even when these biases are taken into account it still succeeds at that goal.
The series is essentially separated into three parts, which are the three-documentary series that make up this 13-episode series. The first part deals with Peterson’s initial trial after the police charge him with the murder of his wife. The second part of the series deals with the retrial as new evidence is revealed which could help to vindicate Peterson. The third part, which is the part that Netflix worked on, deals with a freed Peterson going through the last act of his court dealings while trying to bring closure to everything.
While all three of these parts are great in their own individual ways, the second part of the series does lag a bit. The first part of the series shows the audience what happened during the case, who Michael Peterson is and details all the intriguing twists and turns that took place during the trial. The third part helps to wrap up the series in a superb and bitter-sweet way. The second part, while important, has less to offer than the other two parts.
A true crime documentary series runs the risk of being interchangeable with other members of that genre due to the topic material. “The Staircase” not only avoids being that interchangeable series, but it also makes sure that it will never become interchangeable through its style and execution.
Final Grade: A