In the past few years, I have consumed and enjoyed Serial (the This American Life podcast), Making a Murderer and The Jinx and as a result, I was starting to think I might be developing a taste for true crime. Maybe I am, although recently P was listening to a true crime podcast and it got a bit gory and upsetting, so I certainly can’t claim to love all of it. Either way, I was talking with a friend about true crime a while ago and she recommended The Staircase.
The Staircase is a courtroom thriller of a documentary series and it follows Micheal Peterson. Peterson is a novelist who lived with his wife, Kathleen, and his large, somewhat complicated family until one night, after a couple of glasses of wine by their pool, Kathleen announced she was going to bed. According to Michael, he said he’d stay up a while and join her later. When he went into the house later, he found her lying in a pool of blood, and the bottom of the staircase, having apparently fallen down the stairs.
What follows is a series of interviews, candid shots, scenes from the courtroom and family scenes of Michael at home with his children, including his two sons, Clayton and Todd, who are from a previous marriage, his two adopted daughters, Elizabeth and Martha and the daughter he had with Kathleen, Caitlin. See? I said the family was complicated.
After Michael made his 911 call and the police and ambulance workers arrived on the scene, and after Kathleen was pronounced dead, and after the dust had settled, suspicions began to arise that her death might not have been an accident. The court case that followed was long, complicated and (as these documentaries so often do) seemed to me to highlight the many incompetencies that are apparently rife in the US court system, and that so often end up ruining peoples’ lives.
I’d contrast this series with similar series, like Making a Murder or The Jinx, to say that Michael Peterson seems like a thoroughly ordinary guy. I realise, of course, that murderers and psychopaths and so on, often seem ordinary, but over the serval hours of the documentary, he seems to be nothing other than a family man. We see hundreds of scenes of him hanging out with his daughters Elizabeth and Martha, who repeatedly insist that their adoptive father could never have done anything to harm Kathleen.
Where I found Robert Durst terrifying in The Jinx, and I felt sorry for Steven Avery in Making a Murderer (if not necessarily 100% convinced of his innocence) I didn’t feel like The Staircase ever came very close to providing any real motive for the supposed murder. At worst, there was some awkward circumstantial evidence. Perhaps I was just seeing the documentary makers’ bias, but I found it hard to see Peterson as a potential killer. I might be alone there, though, as it seems this isn’t the only documentary about the case.
Perhaps because I didn’t find Peterson convincing as a murderer (which he, no doubt, would be pleased about) I didn’t find myself wanting to watch “just one more episode,” desperate to find out what happened next. As a result, it took me a long time to get through this series and when I was finished I wasn’t totally satisfied by the ending. Whilst watchable, I’d say that both Making a Murderer and The Jinx both made more compelling television.