How to get away with true crime
'The Staircase', a pioneering entry in the true-crime docu-series genre, is coming to Netflix, with new episodes
For inveterate true-crime enthusiasts, I usually extend one recommendation: The Staircase, a lesser-seen French miniseries that aired on BBC Four in 2005. Those that comply tend to find themselves enslaved by its close-quarters storytelling, ultimately emerging red-eyed, vexed, unshowered; set to lose additional hours to frantic internet sleuthing (researching owl attacks).
The crime itself is unspectacular. In the winter of 2001, Michael Peterson, a then 58-year-old novelist, claimed he smoked a cigarette by the pool of his mansion, returned indoors, and discovered his wife unconscious at the bottom of a staircase. Peterson was charged with murder. Soon after his arrest, French film-maker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade—who had previously directed the Oscar-winning 2001 documentary Murder On A Sunday Morning—filmed Peterson through his trial, shooting close to 700 hours of footage.
It resulted in a Peabody award-winning eight-part series (which also inspired the Serial podcast), and a follow-up special, The Staircase II: The Last Chance, in 2013, prompted by a new development in the case. Lestrade’s fly-on-the-wall approach introduced a startling intimacy to the genre, especially in the later episodes that play out more like a tense courtroom drama than a grim whodunnit. In the weeks leading up to the trial, you watch Peterson, largely unreadable, being coached by his lawyers—on tackling slippery questions, on learning appropriate body language, on outplaying jury biases.
Now, 17 years later, Lestrade returns to the case with two new episodes that will premiere on Netflix this summer, along with the original series. It dovetails with the platform’s ongoing focus on true crime, following on the heels of the Duplass brothers’ pacy miniseries Evil Genius, which examines the 2003 “pizza bomber heist" in Pennsylvania.
Lestrade’s film reveals loopholes in the criminal justice system without quite making a case for Peterson. In a 2005 interview, Lestrade told The Times: “I was persuaded that when it was all over, I would have the definite conviction that he killed her or he didn’t. In the end, there’s a very intimate part of people that nobody can penetrate. I still don’t know what happened."
Increasingly, that is not the case. The role of the true-crime film-maker has grown from impartial observer to active investigator. Two genre classics—The Thin Blue Line (1988) and the Paradise Lost trilogy (1996)—freed the wrongly convicted, and set in motion the current trend of casting doubt on a former verdict (accelerated by the Serial podcast’s monumental success).
Most affecting of these was Making A Murderer (2015), which enraged millions, who signed a petition for the release of the two accused. After being criticized for overlooking evidence against Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey, its makers promised a more even-handed approach in the show’s forthcoming second season, Convicting A Murderer, to “see if viewers feel the same way they did two years ago".
There remain unaddressed discomforts with the genre’s turn to activism. In her critique in the New Yorker of the film-making choices in Making A Murderer, Kathryn Schulz points to the most important one: “We still have not thought seriously about what it means when a private investigative project—bound by no rules of procedure... shaped only by the ethics and aptitude of its makers—comes to serve as our court of last resort."