By Gregory Crofton
In another coup for Netflix it snatched from Sundance Channel the streaming rights to “THE STAIRCASE,” a now 13-episode (the original series was eight) courtroom saga about the murder case against Michael Peterson, an author from North Carolina and one-time mayoral candidate.
Initially released in 2003, this addictive series is full of fascinating characters and its episodic form and subject matter were surely a harbinger of the days of binge-watching we now find ourselves in.
The central mystery is this: Did Peterson murder his 48-year-old wife Kathleen Peterson after she discovered his sexual relationships with men? Or did she tumble down the stairs and somehow die a bloody mess, strangled with seven lacerations on her scalp? Or, even, was she a victim of a random owl attack, not unheard of in Durham, North Carolina?
Peterson said his wife had been drinking wine the night of her death and was stressed about her status at work as a telecommunications executive because of layoffs. But Kathleen was also the owner of a $1.4 million life insurance policy and the couple were burdened with a serious amount of debt. Such details, and there are many more, fashion this story into a true novel, the type that Peterson likely wish he could have written.
Who knows what happened that December night? No one will ever really know because Mr. Peterson — now 74 — isn’t talking, or at least isn’t talking about anything that’s close to the truth. Peterson is a narcissist of the first order whose guilt bleeds through every frame he’s in.
Peterson loves attention. He invited in this camera crew. He also continues to victimize his adopted daughters, his sons, never letting them have a moment’s break from his “love.” Even Sophie Brunet, the editor of “THE STAIRCASE” fell victim to his charm because the two became embroiled in a relationship that ended in 2017, according to Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, the director of “THE STAIRCASE.”
What a shame to see this epic, high quality production tarnished by a slimy Peterson tentacle. But then again, the reason the series is so compelling is because of Peterson. He is so weird, clearly guilty and yet still so needy and thoroughly American. He reminds me of O.J. Simpson.
Perhaps this is why it took a French documentary production team to tell this story. They were able to spot Peterson in the wild and recognize his force of character more clearly because of their cultural detachment.
Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s previous work, “MURDER ON A SUNDAY MORNING” (2001), won an Oscar for Best Feature Documentary. It can be plodding and it’s nowhere near the same caliber of entertainment as “THE STAIRCASE.” Don’t miss out on this series.