'The Staircase' Is Netflix's Best Drama, and Also a True-Crime Documentary
Netflix shows are almost always too long, and The Staricase, the streaming service’s latest, 13-episode true-crime series, looks at first as though it might also suffer from that infamous Netflix bloat. Then you watch the first episode, and there are lengthy, seemingly unedited scenes of small talk that, while interesting, stoke fears that this documentary about a murder is actually about filmmakers who couldn’t kill their darlings. Sure, they got some amazing behind the scenes footage, but is it really good enough that we need to see all of it?
The answer is a jaw-dropping yes.
Netflix’s lengthy tendencies aren’t solely the reason why The Staircase, which drops on Friday, June 8, is 13-episodes long. The first eight episodes of the acclaimed documentary series are actually more than a decade old, and the tenth and eleventh episodes are from 2013. Only the last three episodes are “new,” but they’re the latest, seemingly final installments in a fascinating murder trial. In December of 2001, novelist Michael Peterson called 911 to report that his wife Kathleen had fallen down the stairs in their Durham, North Carolina home. Authorities suspected Peterson was responsible for his wife’s death and charged him with murder, prompting one of the longest trials in state history, and the French filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade was there for every moment.
And, boy do we mean every moment. The access Peterson, his family, and his defense team gave Lestrade is shocking. The filmmaker and his crew are there, a seemingly omnipresent and unnoticed, as Peterson openly talks about his fears and feelings with his children, or as the legal team makes gallows humor while planning his defense.
If you’re coming toThe Staircase fresh, as many Netflix viewers are, at first these extended scenes might seem like they might need a little trimming. It doesn’t take long for the subjects of the documentary to start to feel like characters, though, and that’s in large part because The Staircase gives them plenty of time to reveal who they are to the audience.
Peterson is largely even-natured and definitely too smart for his own good, though whether or not he’s a killer remains a mystery (I changed my mind several times over the course of the show). His adopted daughters (whose birth mother also died at the bottom of a staircase) grapple with loyalty and normality at a crucial period of their atypical lives. The space The Staircase gives its subjects makes for captivating viewing because of all the opportunities for small moments of deep insight, and because in these extraordinary circumstances, nothing is mundane.
The night before the trial was set to begin, Peterson’s charismatic attorney David Rudolf slowly gets “fucking pissed” as Windows XP-era computer issues and an incompetent assistant hamper his last minute, late-night preparations for the opening argument he’ll deliver the next day. A decade later, Lestrade’s cameras capture another moment where Peterson, begins pontificating while trimming a planet when he gets a call, on-camera, from his attorney with bad, emotionally loaded news. You couldn’t write character work this good.
The Staircase isn’t really about anything beyond the immediate fallout of Kathleen Peterson’s death, which works to its benefit. Whereas Making a Murderer and The Keepers, two recent Netflix true crime series, used specific crimes as an entryway to examine greater corruption in the police force of Catholic more broadly, The Staircase doesn’t trouble itself with larger issues.
While there are some incidences of legal misconduct in later episodes (there’s a reason why Lestrade came back and made two updates to the story a decade later), the series never earnestly attempts to open this pandora’s box. It’s only when Peterson or his allies allude to the forces driving district attorneys to rigorously uphold convictions that viewers get any sense something bigger could be at work, but everything in The Staircase ultimately connects with the players involved. It’s about people, not in the sense that it’s a codex of human behavior, but that it’s about these people.
The Staircase feels more like American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson than it does Making a Murderer, though even that comparison isn’t quite accurate because Ryan Murphy’s take on the O.J. trial was also about race relations and police brutality in America. The similarities lie in the gripping, almost blow-by-blow of an engrossing court case. Whereas People v. O.J.’s courtroom antics or heart-to-hearts between members of the legal teams as they prepped for argument were all fictionalized and dramatized, The Staircase is real.
There is, to be sure, tons of editing in The Staircase. Every extended scene from the trial itself is engrossing because Lestrade didn’t include the less-interested arguments, and some of Peterson’s most reflective, revealing moments occur because there was somebody with a camera there to ask a question. So, The Staircase isn’t truly unbiased reality. No documentary is. But, the slow-TV approach to true crime lets real-life drama present itself in a way that’s impossible not to get sucked into.
True crime as a genre is often focused on “the truth” — who did it? The Staircase might not satisfy those looking for an investigation into the final facts or circumstances that caused a particular murder. Lestrade cares less about “what happened” than “what happened next,” focusing instead on the grim, fascinating truth of these peoples’ lives in the wake of tragedy.
The Staircase hits Netflix on June 8.