Directed by Academy Award®-winning filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade (Murder on a Sunday Morning), THE STAIRCASE is like the most suspenseful of page-turners, adding "layers of complexity until one is entirely hooked by its ambiguities and twists and turns." (Chicago Tribune) One of the most highly acclaimed documentaries in recent years, this shocking, real-life thriller follows the high-profile murder trial of North Carolina author Michael Peterson, who was arraigned in 2001 for the murder of his wife after her body is discovered lying in a pool of blood on the stairway of the couple's upscale Durham home. Did Kathleen Peterson fall down the stairs, or was it cold-blooded murder? As the mystery unravels, de Lestrade's cameras are granted unusual access to Peterson's lawyers, home, and immediate family, resulting in a gripping, inside look at a case so shocking, it is sure to leave you gasping for breath.
It's Law & Order come to life as the Sundance Channel's consistently absorbing, often riveting The Staircase chronicles a sensational North Carolina murder case from the crime to the verdict. When Kathleen Peterson was found dead in her Durham, NC mansion in December '01, her husband, novelist Michael Peterson, claimed she had fallen down a narrow staircase. The authorities disagreed, and Peterson was charged with first degree murder. Thereafter, director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade and his crew were given almost unrestricted access to the defendant (who remained free on bail) and his legal team, as well as to the district attorney and the prosecution crew, albeit to a lesser extent. There are countless meetings to map out defense strategy, dozens of interviews (including many with Peterson himself; he's not an especially sympathetic character), scenes of pre-trial home life, excerpts from Court TV coverage, and so on. The filmmakers follow the prosecution investigators to Texas, where we see a body exhumed; there's even a trip to Germany to look into a previous death in which Peterson may or may not have been involved.
The result is both exhaustive and exhausting; indeed, it's not until the end of the fourth of the series' eight episodes (each is about 45 minutes long) that the actual trial begins. By then, various revelations about Peterson, ranging from surprising to unsavory to downright sordid, have proved once again that truth really is stranger than fiction. In fact, while the four-month trial is interesting, it doesn't reveal much that we don't already know. Unlike most so-called "reality" programming, The Staircase is the genuine article. That means that it lacks the constant throb of big, dramatic scenes provided by your average TV cop-courtroom show, especially as the series is well over six hours long. Still, although one might easily skip to Episode 8 to learn the outcome, there's more than enough suspense to justify watching every minute of it, and regardless of one's expectations, the announcement of the verdict is a jolting moment. Only two key elements remain unexplained: What went on in the jury room during deliberations? And did Peterson do it, or not? Only he knows, and he ain't talkin'. --Sam Graham
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