The Staircase review: This Netflix show explores courtroom drama through new and harrowing angles

Mihir Fadnavis

June 16, 2018 10:46:15 IST

Another week, another addictive binge worthy true crime show on Netflix – it seems the streaming giant has perfected the storytelling form it has made mainstream ever since Making a Murderer made headlines. The idea that being framed by the government on wrongful charges has become something of a true crime cliché but The Staircase explores this now well known sub-genre from new and harrowing angles.

A still from The Staircase. Netflix

A still from The Staircase. Netflix

We are sent back to 2001 in grainy barely digital images and introduced to a certain Michael Peterson, an unassuming but wealthy writer in the deep South explaining in detail about his whereabouts during a certain incident. The incident is immediately revealed over voice-over of a frantic phone call to the cops – Peterson’s second wife is found dead at the bottom of a staircase, gory splashes of blood plastered around the walls. The scene does not look like an accident – it resembles the aftermath of a visit by the Manson family, and the show chronicles the investigation into the supposed murder and Peterson’s ultimate trial. And just when you think this is going to be a run-of-the-mill exploration of criminal justice failing individuals, the show pulls the rug under your feet with a twist at the beginning of episode three that lays bare the significance of the title.

The unique element of The Staircase is that it was originally made as an eight-episode series back in the early 2000s where Peterson’s trial was filmed by director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade in real time. A lot has happened since then and the now 13-episode arc contains modern day footage which not only covers the aftermath of the trial but also gives a sense of the brutal passage of time and how it can affect every single person connected to the case. The footage itself is unprecedented as the cameras follow Michael’s family in their most private and vulnerable moments as well as within the walls of the court and even in Germany where the story unexpectedly turns to as the ghosts of the past begin haunting the Petersons. The unique approach of filming for almost 18 years gives Lestrade a chance to showcase the passage of time as we switch from grubby camcorder style low-fi visuals in the beginning of the show to modern day digital camera footage which is cold and distant, echoing Peterson’s own state of mind.  

All the expected exciting elements are present – like the show painstakingly delving into in court proceedings of blood splatters analytics and forensic testimonies from individuals who seem clearly biased and bigoted because they dwell in a traditional Red State and cannot stomach values that are not conservative. The whodunit layer works as a backbone to the film but director Lestrade incorporates the nature of the humans connected to the case as the more significant and effective framing device. As a result of the character-driven approach, the pace of the show does not quite match the breathless delights of Wild Wild Country and Making a Murderer but the experience is more intimate as you see Peterson and his many children age through years, cornered from all directions and the typically shrieking media personalities having already branded him as a killer. It is unsettling as we travel down the rabbit hole that shows us doors that open up to the infirmity of the criminal justice system in the democratic capital of the world and the frailness of the people on both sides of the law.

By the end of the show, you are left with a variety of wracking emotions from rage, despair and even fatigue over the sheer length of the case, and the volume of information presented to us; it makes you wonder what a person under trial for nearly two decades can go through and what he would give to finally step away from the spotlight. It all culminates into a final episode that works as a melancholic lament than a triumphant victory that you expect it to be. As cinemagoers, we are used to seeing truth and justice triumph, and this little show gives you a glimpse into how both elements could fail you when you are least expecting it.

The Staircase is now streaming on Netflix India.

Updated Date: Jun 16, 2018 10:46 AM