Even the best TV courtroom dramas – shows such as “The Good Wife/Fight” and “Goliath” – have a habit of reducing everything to binary form: guilty or not guilty; good or evil; black or white. No case is too complicated that it can’t be resolved within the space of 45 minutes or one season, all loose ends neatly tied up.
This may explain the huge demand in recent years for true crime documentaries – either on the small screen (“Making a Murderer,” “The Jinx”) or on podcasts (“Serial,” “Dirty John”) – where life is messy and crime exponentially messier; where some things are just unknowable and closure is never truly obtained.
Perhaps the greatest achievement of “The Staircase” (now available on Netflix) is that you can watch all 13 episodes and ultimately still not be able to decide whether the protagonist, Michael Peterson, is guilty or innocent, regardless of what 12 jurors have decided. (Not that this means that much, either: As the show makes abundantly clear, justice is a set of scales that can be easily rigged to fall on one side or the other.)
You may want to believe that Peterson didn’t brutally kill his wife, Kathleen, in December 2001. And you may want to take his word that she fell down a narrow flight of stairs at their luxury home in Durham County, North Carolina. But you won’t be able to 100 percent commit to it – heck, even Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, the French filmmaker who spent over 15 years filming the case, isn’t entirely sure.
The first eight episodes of “The Staircase” aired in 2004, with a further two episodes following in 2011. Now, the tragic story of the Petersons reaches a conclusion with three brand-new episodes, with all available as a dangerously compulsive binge-watch on Netflix.
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I knew nothing of the Kathleen Peterson murder case when I sat down to watch “The Staircase,” so everything here was a revelation to me. And what revelations: This is a show with so many twists and turns, it should be called “The Spiral Staircase.”
I am not about to reveal any spoilers, but I will offer some sound advice: Put a blanket on the ground when you’re watching, so that when your jaw repeatedly keeps hitting the floor, it won’t hurt as much. Over the course of 12 hours of television, one shock just follows another – right up until the very, very end of legal proceedings.
Because the show was recorded over so many years, there’s an element of Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” to things. Michael Peterson is a spry fiftysomething when the case starts, but a mere husk by the time things conclude. Yet while the accused is clearly the center of attention here, his children play as important a role in this ridiculously dramatic story.
Peterson had a complicated domestic setup, to say the least, with two sons from a first marriage, two adopted daughters and a stepdaughter. What was truly awe-inspiring for me was how some of these children responded to the nightmare of their father being accused of killing their mother. Without giving too much away, may we all have such devoted, loyal children as those in “The Staircase” (which explains my “I HEART Martha and Margaret" T-shirt).
Inept legal system
Excepting the occasional minor detour, the documentary follows Peterson, his family and his defense team – which basically becomes his second family as the years pass – during the trial, which does lead to some unease for the viewer. With such amazingly unfettered access to Michael and Co.’s side of the story, we become “Team Peterson,” rooting for his acquittal as we warm to and become invested in the family, as well as lead defense lawyer David Rudolf and private investigator Ron Guerette.
As a result, I practically found myself booing the prosecution team, led by sweaty Jim Hardin, sanctimonious Freda Black and dubious Duane Deaver (you couldn’t make up a name like that), who is a key expert witness from the State Bureau of Investigations. And whenever Kathleen Peterson’s two sisters were on screen, I struggled not to picture them as the two wicked stepsisters in “Cinderella.” Unfortunately – and this is the show’s biggest flaw – they are only given enough time to come across as vindictive and rather homophobic, which is clearly unfair, since their actions are born out of grief for their sister.
One of the most startling elements about “The Staircase” is how inept the legal system and its representatives often appear. At various points I found myself screaming at the judge, Rudolf and his defense team, and the expert witnesses for their seeming bias or amateurish mistakes, forgetting that these are not the scripted, polished courtroom performances of a Christine Baranski or a Billy Bob Thornton. The show also makes you wonder what Peterson is being tried for exactly: a murder, or his private life.
Although the subject matter couldn’t be darker and there are some very harrowing scenes, there is also surprising levity among all of the legal games – such as when the defense team tries to come up with a line to rival Johnnie Cochran’s “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit” doozy in the O.J. Simpson murder trial. (“If it ain’t the poke, he ain’t your bloke” is the clear winner, but thankfully they don’t use this reference to a suspected murder weapon in court.)
Peterson himself says early on in the proceedings, “Everybody’s focused on my trial. It’s a diversion. It’s an entertainment. It’s a show.” He had no idea quite how right he was. This is entertainment. This is a show – and it’s the best thing on Netflix right now.
Ultimately, there are two mysteries at the heart of “The Staircase”: How did Kathleen Peterson die? And who is Michael Peterson, the smart, enigmatic yet problematic man accused of her murder? We may never know the answer to either question, but you will spend many hours speculating during and afterward. (And just wait until you get online and start reading some of the stuff that didn’t even make the show. Two words: owl theory.)
You wouldn’t expect many laughs in a three-part documentary about the terror attacks in Paris in 2015. And you would be right, almost. “November 13: Attack on Paris” (also on Netflix) starts with a series of beautifully lit politicians recalling the events of that horrific night, when 130 people were murdered and over 350 wounded by jihadi terrorists in a two-hour killing spree.
My interest in the documentary was piqued by its directors, French brothers Jules and Gédéon Naudet, who by happenstance made the definitive documentary about 9/11 (they were recording a film about a rookie firefighter in New York when they got caught in the story of the century).
Although it does include some footage from the scene of the attacks, “November 13” shouldn’t be compared to “9/11,” Indeed, during the first episode I wondered if this was little more than “terror porn,” as survivors and officials recounted the horrors of the shootings at a series of cafés and bars in central Paris.
But then the documentary started focusing exclusively on what happened at the Eagles of Death Metal concert at the Bataclan that night: Four terrorists stormed the building and started mowing down the 1,550 people packed into the hall – at the now eerie moment when the band was playing “Kiss the Devil.”
The smartphone footage is shocking enough, but the documentary literally surges to life when a group of survivors recount their experiences and, more importantly, their emotions after the shootings began. It’s remarkable to see how different people reacted – from anger and acceptance to fear and bewilderment, and all points in between.
It’s impossible not to respect and love the interviewees for their honesty and bravery – people like Gregory, who, when faced with an AK-47 in his face, found himself fretting about whether he had left his apartment in a mess. Or Marie, whose on-screen stoicism finally cracks in heartbreaking fashion. And yes, there really are laugh-out-loud moments – like the story about a French hostage negotiator with a ridiculously thick Southern accent, or the terrorists’ demands for walkie-talkies (“Very strange, because walkie-talkies are so 1980s,” says Gregory’s wonderfully forthright girlfriend, Caroline, who could only be more French if she were smoking a Gauloises throughout the interview).
You won’t learn anything here about the backgrounds or motives of the terrorists (indeed, only one of the 40 witnesses mentions a gunman by name). But you will emerge hoping that the message Marie conveys at the end of the documentary is true: “In the end, love will always win.”