TV Review: The Staircase

Monday 9 May 2016 by

The Staircase, Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, Michael Petersen, Documentary

Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s eight-part factual miniseries The Staircase documents the trial of American author Michael Peterson, who was tried for murder after his wife’s body was discovered at the bottom of some stairs in the family home. The overhanging question of the documentary is whether or not it really was murder or simply a tragic accident. I’m not going to say anything here about the events documented as I think it’s best to just go in blind and draw your own views. I stumbled upon this by chance and began viewing it knowing only that it was a highly recommended documentary about the criminal justice system. I purposefully avoided looking into the case in any way as I didn’t want to have any preconceived ideas about it.

Early episodes explore both sides of the case, speaking with both the prosecution and the defence giving viewers an insight into both sides of the story. This does however tail off by episode 4 with the remaining episodes focussing on the defence which ultimately makes it feel a little biased – I had been hoping it would remain on equal footing but equally know that it’s highly unlikely that any documentary of this sort could ever be completely unbiased. However, this does not make it any less fascinating to watch. Viewers are given an incredible insight into the makings of a trial and court proceedings; finding experts to give testimony, blood splatter analysis and other experiments involved, observing how people react to experts’ analyses and how this will benefit or jeopardise outcomes, preparation of speeches, what to include and what to dismiss, jurors visiting the scene. It truly is a fascinating watch for anyone interested in the court system.

A highly interesting aspect of the series is the documentation of how the family cope through the events that unfold, how they interact, and how they manage to spend so much time in the home where the scene of the incident remains preserved for the entirety of the investigation and trial. It isn’t always fast paced but there are certainly many twists and turns that will keep you hooked and it raises a lot of questions. I think it’s safe to say that after viewing this you will be left with unanswered questions – I was certainly left wondering why certain people changed their views, and what some of the evidence may have been – but I think that’s to be expected, eight 45 minute episodes are never going to be able to depict all information garnered during a five-month trial and 600 hours of footage.

Despite some flaws this is a thoroughly intriguing piece of filmmaking that is a must for anyone interested in the criminal justice system.

Rating, Four, Review

The Staircase (2004, Dir. Jean-Xavier de Lestrade) is available on DVD now.

Nerissa is a writer, mummy and rather proud geek living in the countryside. In between playtime, cuddles and fun times she loves to read, knit, bake and write Young Adult and children’s fiction.

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