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‘The Staircase’ Documentary Is in the DNA of NBC’s New Comedy Whodunnit ’Trial & Error’

Fans of the true-crime series will recognize several parallels and references … but did the owl do it?!

Nicholas D'Agosto and John Lithgow, "Trial & Error"

Nicholas D’Agosto and John Lithgow, “Trial & Error”

Evans Vestal Ward/NBC

Before “Making the Murderer,” “The Jinx,” and even “Serial,” the documentary “The Staircase” illustrated a story of death and desire that was riveting for all of its unexpected turns.

“The Staircase” took the true crime world by storm, and fans of the series were divided over whether or not mystery novelist Michael Peterson had killed his wife – or if she had died from falling down the stairs, as he claimed. The series was so popular that it inspired NBC’s new comedy “Trial & Error,” a true-crime mockumentary that stars John Lithgow as the accused in a murder case.

READ MORE: The Best Murder Mystery Series Ever — IndieWire Critics Survey

“The genesis of this was around five years ago in the writers’ rooms across Warner Bros…. a documentary called ‘The Staircase’ was going around,” the sitcom’s executive producer Jeff Astroff told reporters at the Television Critics Association in January. “And I remember I watched it with my wife — and at the time I wish I had said John Lithgow for this story to work — [but instead] I said, ‘If this guy was played by Steve Carell, this would be the funniest comedy I’ve ever seen.’ And my wife gave me as much encouragement as any time she ever has, and she said, ‘Yeah, maybe.’”

While knowledge of “The Staircase” is not necessary to understand “Trial & Error,” it can increase one’s appreciation of the comedy. The show’s “Staircase” references are flagrant and frequent. Here is a primer for “The Staircase” murder case and just a few of the parallels seen in “Trial & Error.”

"Trial & Error"

“Trial & Error”


The Basics

“The Staircase”: In 2001, Kathleen Peterson was found dead and in a pool of her own blood at the base of the stairs of the North Carolina home she shared with her husband, mystery novelist Michael Peterson. He was outside in their yard at the time and when he returned to discover her body, he called 911 to report the death, which he attributed to her falling down the stairs. He was later put on trial for murdering his wife.

Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade filmed the defense’s side of the case, following their investigation process, their arguments and even behind the scenes of Peterson’s home life all the way through the verdict and sentencing. The documentary, which was named “Soupçons” (French for “Suspicions”), was initially released in eight parts in 2004. Two more parts were added in 2012.

Check out a trailer for “The Staircase”/“Soupçons”:

“Trial & Error”: Poetry writer and professor Larry Henderson (Lithgow) was waiting for the cable guy outside his South Carolina home, but when he went inside, he found the body of his wife Margaret, who had gone through a large plate-glass window. He also called 911. A documentary crew is filming the case and also shows Henderson’s home life, the investigation led by junior defense attorney Josh Segal (Nicholas D’Agosto) and his team of locals: Dwayne Reed (Steven Boyer) and Anne Flatch (Sherri Shepherd).

Check out a trailer for “Trial & Error”:


The Family

“The Staircase”: Peterson’s family is a rather large and complicated one. He was first married to a woman named Patty, with whom he had two sons, Clayton and Todd. While they were living in Germany, they also adopted two girls, siblings Martha and Margaret, after their mother died. Peterson split with Patty and moved to Durham, North Carolina. When he married his second wife Kathleen, her daughter Caitlin joined the extended family. During the trial, we also see that Kathleen’s sisters doubt Peterson’s innocence after some secrets come to light.

“Trial & Error”: Henderson only has one adopted daughter, Summer (Krysta Rodriguez). Margaret was his second wife, and we get to meet her brother Jeremiah (Bob Gunton) and his wife Josie (Christine Rose).

"Trial & Error"

“Trial & Error”

Tyler Golden/NBC

READ MORE: ‘Serial,’ ‘The Jinx,’ ‘Making a Murderer’ and the Rise of the Prestige Docuseries

The Pets

“The Staircase”: The Peterson family has had many bulldogs over the years, and at least one of them is seen often in the docuseries.

“Trial & Error”: Henderson has a West Highland white terrier named Shakespeare.

John Lithgow, "Trial & Error"

John Lithgow, “Trial & Error”

Tyler Golden/NBC

The Strategies

“The Staircase”: The defense, led by attorney David Rudolf, often used boards to visualize their process, whether it was creating a family tree or to list “Good Facts” and “Bad Facts” on giant sheets of paper taped to a wall to assess Peterson’s chances.

“Trial & Error”: Henderson’s team also uses a “Good Facts/Bad Facts” list, although their grasp of what a “fact” is might be more in line with how Kellyanne Conway would define it. Instead, they seem to have the best success with brainstorming lunch options.

Sherri Shepherd, "Trial & Error"

Sherri Shepherd, “Trial & Error”

Tyler Golden/NBC

The Twists:

“The Staircase”: Several developments in the case took the defense by surprise, and many of them did not serve Peterson well. For one, he was a closeted bisexual and had had sex outside of marriage multiple times, although he claimed his wife knew. Even more damning, Elizabeth Ratliff, the family friend who was the mother of Martha and Margaret, had died in a suspiciously similar death from falling down the stairs in Germany years before. At the time, her death was ruled accidental. The body had to be exhumed to determine if her death should instead be deemed a homicide.

“Trial & Error”: We’d hate to spoil any surprises for viewers, so we’ll only confirm one that’s seen in the trailer above: Larry, like Michael, is bisexual and has had a lover outside of his marriage.


“The Staircase”: Although the theory was not posited in the docuseries, it has gained steam after the events filmed. This is so strange we want it to be true: attorney T. Lawrence Pollard suggested that the injuries on Kathleen’s head could have been caused by a large owl attacking her outside. When she ran inside, she was knocked unconscious when she fell and hit the stairs. The crime lab report had found microscopic owl feathers and a sliver of a tree limb found in a clump of her hair that was clutched in her hand during at the time of her death. Watch Pollard explain his theory below:

“Trial & Error”: We do not know if an owl was responsible for Margaret Henderson’s death or not, but keep a sharp eye out for the owl motif to pop up when you least expect it.

“Trial & Error” premieres with two back-to-back episodes on Tuesday, March 14 at 10 p.m. ET on NBC. “The Staircase” can be streamed on Sundance Now and Amazon.

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