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‘The Staircase’: Looking Back on the Iconic True Crime Docuseries and Its Influence on Pop Culture


Netflix is now streaming one of TV’s original true crime obsessions.

Having reinvigorated the long-form docuseries with streaming sensations such as “Making a Murderer” and “Wild Wild Country,” Netflix is now streaming one of TV’s original true crime obsessions, “The Staircase.” On top of presenting the original eight part series from 2004 about novelist Michael Peterson’s high profile murder trial, the streaming service is also offering two follow-up episodes that aired in 2013 and three more original episodes shot exclusively for Netflix just last year when dramatic new developments arose in the case.

The saga of “The Staircase” begins in 2001 with a frantic phone call to the police from Peterson claiming to have just discovered his wife, Kathleen, dying from a fall at the bottom of the stairs in their Durham, North Carolina home. By the time the police arrive, Kathleen is dead in a bloody scene authorities deem far too grisly to call an accident. Peterson is immediately arrested and charged with the murder of his wife. It’s then that the cameras start rolling. (To catch up, visit IndieWire’s refresher course on the original episode run here). It’s only appropriate that “The Staircase” is being revisited now, given the cultural impact the series has had since it first hit TV screens 14 years ago.

Initially aired on Sundance Channel and Canal+ in France (where it’s known as “Soupçons” – French for “Suspicions”), “The Staircase” was meant to be a feature film. But when filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade – fresh off an Oscar win for his 2001 documentary “Murder on a Sunday Morning” – was given unprecedented access not only to Peterson as he stood trial for the murder of his wife, but Peterson’s family and legal team as well, he wound up with roughly 600 hours of footage. It quickly became clear to Lestrade that this story, with all of its shocking twists and revelations, would require more time to tell it properly. But in 2004, an eight-hour documentary series was a hard sell, as viewers hadn’t quite developed a taste for “binge-able” true crime programming yet (O.J. trial aside). “The Staircase” was eventually sold to more than 30 networks worldwide and became a critical smash, winning a Peabody and an IDA Documentary Award, and landing on many top ten lists, including then-Entertainment Weekly critic Gillian Flynn’s, before she penned the similarly themed husband-accused-of wife’s-murder bestseller “Gone Girl.”

Despite its critical success – and spawning a regrettable Lifetime movie starring Treat Williams – “The Staircase” didn’t quite reach the levels of national zeitgeist that “The Jinx”, “Making a Murderer” or “Serial” have in years since. But its fingerprints are all over those shows, not just in terms of access to the accused, but also in the attention to forensic detail, novelistic approach to storytelling, and a central suspect whose guilt or innocence continues to divide viewers – something that likely won’t change with the coming episodes.

Along with influencing documentary filmmakers, “The Staircase” also served as the inspiration for last year’s cult comedy series “Trial and Error” on NBC, which casts John Lithgow as a professor on trial for his wife’s murder while a documentary crew films the whole thing. The show is an admitted spoof of the Peterson case, throwing in endless Easter eggs for fans of the documentary series and going so far as to give Lithgow’s character the same secret sexual past as Peterson. “Trial and Error” will be returning July 19th – just in time for everyone to catch up with the actual case on Netflix.

A lot has changed since “The Staircase” first aired 14 years ago. Our obsession with true-crime murder narratives and personalities has reached a fever pitch in the age “The Jinx” and “Serial.” In fact, these shows are becoming so popular as to become part of the story they’re telling – an issue the newest episodes of “The Staircase” explores. At one point Kathleen’s sister stands up in a courtroom and admonishes Lestrade and the filmmakers for giving a man she believes to be a murderer such a toxic public platform. It’s a complicated moment in a complicated and harrowing story. But whatever your thoughts on it may be, “The Staircase” is an undeniably compelling and iconic look at murder, privilege, and the criminal justice system – and with its arrival on Netflix, one you’re sure to be obsessing (or re-obsessing) over. Watch the “The Staircase” trailer below, and click here to watch it on Netflix.

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