The Show You Need To Binge-Watch This Week: The Staircase

The Show You Need To Binge-Watch This Week: The Staircase

One of SL’s favourite true-crime documentaries has just landed on Netflix. Filmed in 2003, The Staircase set the benchmark for the likes of Making a Murderer, The Keepers and The Jinx, honing in on the American justice system and the notion of guilt in a measured, non-sensationalised way. Now, with three new episodes to devour, we’re binging it all over again...

What’s it about?

At 2am on 9th December 2001, Durham County state police received a 911 call. Michael Peterson, a well-known novelist, had just found his wife, Kathleen, dead at the bottom of a flight of stairs in their home. He says that she’d taken a couple of Valium, been drinking champagne and wine, and must have slipped in the stairwell. The North Carolina state police claim that she suffered a brutal death at the hands of her husband. These opposing views form the premise of The Staircase: is Michael Peterson guilty or innocent?

Filmed in 2003, the original eight-hour miniseries predates the likes of Making A Murderer, The Jinx and The Keepers. Shown in the UK in 2005 as part of BBC Four’s Storyville collection, French director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s drama centred on Peterson’s trial, from his initial arrest to his ultimate conviction, taking a swipe at the American justice system along the way.

So why is everyone talking about it now? Well, it’s just been acquired by Netflix, which is showing the original episodes alongside two  – dubbed ‘Last Chance’ – that aired in 2013 (Peterson was set to be retried for the crime after it came to light that a member of the prosecution had presented misleading evidence in the first trial). There are also three brand-new episodes, which revisit the Peterson family now that Michael’s been released from jail. We couldn’t wait to see what new theories came to the fore.

Was this murder or a tragic accident? Even with the addition of three up-to-date episodes, that’s left for you to decide

Why is it so binge-worthy?

If you’re a true-crime fanatic, chances are that this will be right up your street. What makes it so fascinating is the fact that rather than focusing on how the crime (if it was one at all) was committed, we get a real insight into the machinations of the courtroom and legal system in America. Prior to Peterson’s trial, we’re exposed to the defence team’s tried-and-tested methods of ensuring that they’re best prepared for any dirt that might be thrown in the defendant’s direction. Led by smooth-talking attorney David Rudolf, they test the prosecution’s potential theories on a mock jury to gage their reactions; Peterson is given vocal coaching should he be called to testify; the legal team surveys thousands of people on their views on bisexuality and happy marriages at an expense of $45,000. And this is all before Peterson gets his day in court.

Then there’s the exploration of jury bias or persuasion. In this case there is no real motive, no murder weapon and no witnesses. So how did they deliver a ‘guilty’ verdict? These twists and turns are delivered in a measured manner that allows the viewers to draw their own conclusions and not get sucked into the drama of exhumed bodies, Peterson’s stash of gay pornography and missing ‘weapons’. In fact, one of the most high-pressured moments of the entire series boils down to a failed PowerPoint presentation (we’ve all been there).

Many question marks still surround the case. Some believe that Peterson is a multi-murderer (family friend and neighbour, Elizabeth Ratliff – incidentally the birth mother of his two adopted children – was also found dead at the bottom of the stairs in 1985). There’s also a popular theory that an owl caused the seven lacerations on the back of Kathleen Peterson’s head (yes, really). Plus, there’s the recent revelation that Peterson was secretly dating one of the filmmakers. Yet, throughout all of this, the central question remains: was this murder or a tragic accident? Even with the addition of three up-to-date episodes, that’s left for you to decide.

Where can I watch it?

The Staircase is available to watch in full on Netflix now.


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