The Staircase review – still the godfather of the true crime documentary

Netflix’s doc about the death of Kathleen Peterson and her novelist husband Michael’s court case remains a sensational, game-changing series

In December 2001, Kathleen Peterson, who was married to the 58-year-old novelist Michael Peterson, was found dead at the bottom of the stairs in their mansion in Durham, North Carolina. Peterson said his wife had fallen, but he was tried for murder. Those bare facts are intriguing, but they are just a tiny part of why The Staircase is a crime documentary to rival any of the genre’s biggest hits.

Netflix’s 13-parter comprises eight episodes released in 2004, another two that debuted in 2013 – up to this point, it has all been shown before on BBC4 – and three new instalments, shot last year. Taken in one hit, it is what Netflix justifiably calls a titanic piece of work that confirms the French director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade as the godfather of the modern longform documentary. You can see why the producers of Making a Murderer sought advice from De Lestrade when they began editing their show: The Staircase demonstrates how to ride the wave of a sensational true story, zooming in on fine details before pulling back to unleash game-changing revelations at the steady rate of one stunner per episode.

Both series dismantle the American justice system, but The Staircase shows it to be not so much corrupt as inexact. It is soon clear that the absolute truth of whether Peterson did it is unlikely to be revealed: the question is whether his lawyers can get him off. We see every grubby facet of that process, including witness coaching and focus groups used to test arguments.

Perhaps de Lestrade struck lucky with his cast, or perhaps it is a natural consequence of viewing an extraordinary situation close-up, but The Staircase has a startling strain of black farce. Amusing eccentrics are everywhere, from the shifty blood-spatter expert Duane Deaver to the chubby, scruffy bloke operating the defence’s courtroom PowerPoint presentation, whose phone keeps going off during a tense rehearsal on the eve of the trial. Part of the point is that Peterson can afford huge legal fees and has a better experience as a result, but his money only buys him a slightly shabby bunch of guys who are improvising their way through a case that keeps blindsiding them with ludicrous new facts.

Peterson with his defence attorney David Rudolf.
Peterson with his defence attorney David Rudolf. Photograph: Netflix

De Lestrade’s slightly grainy footage paints North Carolina in the early noughties as an eerily ancient, analogue world: a typical Staircase scene features men in boxy suits and big polo shirts wrestling inelegantly with flipchart easels or pinboards in a horribly lit conference room. There is something disturbing about the banality of it all, especially since the gravity of the situation never stops these co-workers sharing a joke. At one point, Peterson’s attorney is seen laughing heartily while walking across the exact spot where Kathleen died.

At the centre of the circus is the endlessly mysterious presence on camera of Peterson himself: for the viewer, as well as debating whether he is a killer, there is the broader question of exactly what sort of charming enigma we are dealing with. His assured loquacity, despite all the secrets and accusations hanging over him, gives the impression that on some level he is enjoying himself. Relatives who defect to the prosecution side all say they never knew him at all.

This is a man who, soon after being charged with murder, addresses a media scrum with this prepared line: “Kathleen was my life. I’ve whispered her name in my heart a thousand times.” He smokes a flamboyant pipe and rarely breaks down in tears. If he is guilty, he is remarkably sanguine about the prospect of being convicted. If he is innocent, he is … remarkably sanguine about the prospect of being convicted. There is a lingering suspicion that nothing he says is fully felt and no opinion he puts forward is sincerely held. (As well as writing novels, Peterson was a newspaper columnist.) Yet the wider issues the series touches on – such as unhelpfully prurient media coverage, the injustice of a system favouring rich defendants, and the way a serious crime ruins whole families, not just those directly involved – are not left for us to discern ourselves. Peterson has the presence of mind to make all those points himself.

Particularly in the newest episodes, which have an inessential, fans-only feel compared to the original eight covering the trial, it is the character of Peterson who takes over. He becomes not just the subject of The Staircase but its star and de facto director: the closing scene of him listening to a record is, thanks to his outrageous song choice, one final queasily entertaining moment in a series that remains unsettlingly opaque.


Jack Seale

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Whodunnit: the husband or the owl? How The Staircase invented true crime TV
From OJ to Making a Murderer, true crime shows owe a debt to this extraordinary documentary. As the series is finally shown in full, its director talks about the case that haunts him

Sam Wollaston

05, Jun, 2018 @5:00 AM

Article image
The Invisible Pilot review – true-crime documentary leaves a thousand questions unanswered
Scant analysis underpins this wild tale about a cropdusting pilot’s supposed suicide. Its strange celebration of drug smuggling – and lack of consideration of his children – does a disservice to all involved

Lucy Mangan

11, Jul, 2022 @3:45 PM

Article image
The Keepers review – a breathtakingly brave true-crime documentary
Full of twists and revelations, the new Netflix series meticulously examines the cold case of a nun killed in Baltimore in 1969 – and it’s so much more than just the new Making a Murderer

Julia Raeside

19, May, 2017 @6:00 AM

Article image
Girl in the Picture review – the scale of the true-crime monstrosity will leave you reeling
The awful revelations in Skye Borgman’s documentary about a seeming hit-and-run are utterly staggering – yet it still treats the victims with a rare sensitivity

Lucy Mangan

06, Jul, 2022 @9:31 AM

Article image
I Just Killed My Dad review – this true-crime story will sweep away your faith in humanity
Was Anthony Templet, who shot his father, Burt, a cold-blooded killer? This documentary about the truth behind the case is every bit as hooky and twisty as you’d expect from Netflix

Lucy Mangan

09, Aug, 2022 @5:26 PM

Article image
Who murdered Sister Cathy? Netflix takes true crime to the next level
The body of Cathy Cesnik, a dynamic young nun, was found on a dump in Baltimore decades ago. New documentary The Keepers all but solves the case – and then goes further, thanks to two retired Nancy Drews

Jack Seale

18, May, 2017 @2:33 PM

Article image
The Confession review – you’ll study every gesture in this true-crime documentary
Keith Hall confessed his wife’s murder to an officer wearing a wire – and was found innocent. This programme will leave you scrutinising his every second on screen to make your mind up about him

Jack Seale

25, Nov, 2022 @6:00 AM

Article image
The Tinder Swindler review – the gobsmacking true story of an internet con artist
This gripping Netflix documentary about a jet-setting, internet-dating scammer is both astonishing and full of compassion for his female victims

Rebecca Nicholson

02, Feb, 2022 @12:55 PM

Article image
The awful truth of Netflix’s Jimmy Savile documentary: he gaslit an entire nation
The global success of Jimmy Savile: A British Horror Story has brought the BBC figure’s crimes to the attention of the world. The spotlight is now on how he groomed a whole society

Phil Harrison

14, Apr, 2022 @3:15 PM

Article image
More like this please! The wild, conspiracy-filled Netflix documentary that you can’t resist
Was he murdered? Did he fake his own death? Or did he just die? Trust No One: The Hunt for the Crypto King is a fresh, exciting look at a cryptocurrency superstar’s death

Stuart Heritage

31, Mar, 2022 @11:35 AM