The Staircase
Sundance Channel // Unrated // $39.95 // August 30, 2005
Review by Francis Rizzo III | posted August 27, 2005
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In 10 Words or Less
A twisted legal story starting at the bloody bottom stair

Reviewer's Bias*
Loves: Forensic science, true-life drama
Hates: Liars, blood

The Show
If you know who Michael Peterson is or know what happened with his wife on December 9, 2001, then you know what "The Staircase" is about. You still might be interested in the eight-episode miniseries, but you probably know how the story ends. Those who weren't paying attention to the North Carolina courtroom where the Peterson case played out are in for a real treat: a true-life murder case that has more twists and turns than the best Grisham novel, with a truly unique perspective.

In the Peterson case, Michael Peterson called 911 early in the morning to get help for his wife Kathleen, who he claimed to find at the bottom of a staircase in their house. She was bleeding profusely, and died from her wounds. Because of suspicious circumstances surrounding the death, police arrested Michael, and he was tried for the murder of his wife. If that's all the case involved, it would have been interesting enough to follow the story. But it definitely does not end there.

As the story unfolds during the eight episodes, from the 911 call to the final verdict, the tale takes several turns, including plot twists that would be considered ridiculous if they didn't really happen. To give any of them away would be a disservice to potential viewers, so instead I will say that there's nothing that will disappoint fans of police procedurals and murder mysteries. The emergence of clues and the dismissal of theories is continuous as the story moves toward the conclusion, keeping the show moving constantly forward, thus never becoming boring.

Though it presents the same kind of story that enthralls viewers of shows like "Law and Order," "The Staircase" is unlikely to appeal to audiences in the same way, mainly because of how the story is told. Instead of quick, stylish editing, this miniseries draws its strength from not blinking, showing everything with very purposeful pacing, all backed with a gorgeously dramatic score. Some might feel it's a bit drawn-out at 360 minutes, with much of the lengthy courtroom testimony included, but there are so many details that make up the case that it would be a waste to not reveal them all.

The series has an obvious slant, that the director openly cops to, but it is almost necessary, otherwise the show would be over before the credits finish. This is a case that most people will automatically decide on, and by taking the unpopular point of view, the film challenges viewers to consider other angles and almost taunts them into changing their minds.

It might not have been that way, had the prosecution cooperated with the documentarians, but instead, this series became a fascinating look at the defensive aspects of a trial. I can't say I've ever seen such an in-depth exploration of the legal system, as I don't know of such a high-profile defense team that's ever allowed cameras behind closed doors. When you see colleagues arguing over the very points they need to solidify behind, and watch them struggle with focus groups to hone their strategy, it shows how much of the legal system is about appearance and presentation, instead of the truth. One attorney's pre-trial outburst at his computer consultant tells you so much about the stability of the case.

One of the more unusual aspects of the series is the dark sense of humor involved. For example, in the midst of this very serious murder case, one witness actually cracks up the court, including the judge, with his humorous comments. It's a bizarre moment that really stands out among the multitude of bizarre moments in this series. But even stranger is the more subtle fact that you're watching a suspected murderer live out his life on trial in front of a camera. To see him play around with his daughters or complain about the community around him, no matter what you believe about the case, is an unusual situation.

Watching the defense's case unfold allows one to see the lawyers and Peterson himself laugh about topics and situations that would and should make a person involved in such a case cringe. It certainly adds another layer to the audience's experience, as they see things about a court case that the general public never sees. It's this aspect of the series that truly makes "The Staircase" something special. As an inside view into the strange world of trial defense, this series is an invaluable document for anyone to view.

The DVDs
The eight episodes of "The Staircase" are split evenly over two DVDs, which are packaged in two keepcases, slipcased in a sturdy cardboard cover. In the slipcase is a nicely designed booklet that describes the episodes and introduces all the main players and the filmmakers. Sadly, considering how brilliant the cover art is, the menus follow the Docurama style, which is static and consistently bland and gray, and unfortunately full-frame. Options include play all, episode selection and extras. The episode selection menu has still previews and titles for each episode. There are no language options or subtitles, nor is there closed captioning.

The Quality
The episodes are presented in letterboxed widescreen, with a very nice level of video quality and no noticeable dirt, damage or grain. The detail of the series is rather high, and the colors are just about beautiful, with a very natural look. The film balances the naturalistic feel of a documentary with artfully composed shots that have the visual impact of fictional films, and this DVD set reproduces them quite well. This is an impressive looking documentary.

The sound, which is delivered in a Dolby Digital 2.0 track, is crisp and clean, with perfect dialogue and a strong, bold musical soundtrack. The mix isn't dynamic or impressive when pumped through speakers, but it does exactly what it's supposed to do.

The Extras
Disc One holds two of the extras in this set. First up is "Step by Step: The Making of 'The Staircase,'" a Sundance Channel featurette that runs just under four minutes. Focusing on the effort behind making the mini-series, it includes comments by director de Lestrade and producer Denis Poncet. It's very short, but includes a couple of interesting bits of info. In truth, it's mostly a promotional piece for the show.

"Family & Friends: Interview Outtakes" is just what it says, with around 24 and a half minutes of footage split between Martha and Margaret, Todd and Michael and Ron Guerette interviewing friends of Kathleen. Watching these extended, unedited clips almost reveals more about those involved than the whole series does. It's fascinating material, especially the interviews with the two girls, who are as close as one can get to the personifications of pure faith and sorrow.

The second DVD features two more featurettes. "'The Staircase': Filmmakers Insights" is just over 16 minutes long, and is an excellent supplement for those more interested in the men behind the film than Peterson himself. De Lestrad and Poncet share their thoughts about the production and some of the characters and topics focused on in the film.

Their comments on Freda Black, one of the prosecutors, are worth the price of admission, and just about anything Poncet, an extremely outspoken gentleman, says is a gem. Plus, de Lestrad's thoughts about Peterson put an excellent bit of punctuation on the series. A 360-minute commentary with them would have been great, but this very thoughtful and enlightening piece will have to do instead.

The other featurette is a follow-up interview with Michael Peterson, the contents of which will not be shared here. Needless to say, don't watch this until after finishing the series. After watching the series, it becomes obvious what de Lestrad is talking about in the "Insights" piece. In these 13-plus minutes, Peterson shows he is extremely intelligent and has a silver tongue, and as such, he makes this an appropriate epilogue to the show.

The disc wraps with text biographies of the filmmakers, an about Docurama section, and an on-screen catalog that includes descriptions of numerous Docurama DVDs.

The Bottom Line
De Lestrade couldn't have asked for a better subject with which to follow up his Oscar-winning film. The Peterson case has a bit of everything interesting in it, and incredibly, not many people know it or remember it, which lends the series a sense of drama, suspense and surprise that might otherwise be lacking. Plus, the angle the filmmakers take allows them to expand the scope of the series outside of just what's happening in the courtroom, and into general society. The DVD presentation is solid, with a nice collection of extras that hit the spot and round out the story. If you have any interest in the judicial system, this series is a must-view, but if your judgment is easily swayed, the effect of the presentation may be lost on you. Word of caution: the series has several spots that are not for the squeamish. "C.S.I." has nothing on "The Staircase" when it comes to the visceral stuff.

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