You need to watch: The Staircase
How can I see it: It's on DVD, and you can digitally download it on iTunes. It's not streaming for free anywhere, but both the DVD and purchase of the full season on iTunes are relatively inexpensive.
What is it: This one is perfect for fans of the true crime podcast Serial, which recently concluded its first season. Like that show, The Staircase follows the story of a murder and the man accused of that murder. But unlike Serial, The Staircase predominantly takes place during the trial of writer Michael Peterson, accused of killing his wife, Kathleen, who died after falling down a staircase. Did Michael push her? Did he stage the event to look like an accident? Or did his wife simply slip and fall? And all of that comes up before you find out about the other person in his life who died after falling down the stairs.
Why you should watch: Like Serial, The Staircase is a haunting story about the elusive nature of truth, hidden in the guise of a typical documentary. But where Serial makes the reporter doing the investigating into a major character in its narrative, The Staircase keeps its director just offscreen, which better allows the story at its center to just get stranger and stranger. At one point, a theory involving owls is invoked. I'm not kidding.
Director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade first explored the American justice system in the Oscar-winning film Murder on a Sunday Morning. But he went even bigger with The Staircase, which he turned into an initial eight-part miniseries for French television. That was cut down into a shorter version for the ABC news magazine Primetime Live, but the Sundance Channel later imported it and showed it in its original form. Last year, Sundance tacked on two additional chapters that weren't quite to the level of the first eight but, nonetheless, expanded and enriched the story in interesting ways.
The Staircase isn't a traditional whodunnit. It is, at its heart, a meditation on the notion of whether Michael Peterson — or anyone, really — is capable of murder, wrapped in the guise of a courtroom drama. The courtroom drama is propulsive and full of twists (and de Lestrade knows just how to maximize all of them), and it also gives the story a defined point to head toward. When the series ends, you'll still be wondering if Peterson is guilty or innocent, but the jury will have reached its verdict. Those fretting about the inconclusiveness of the ending of Serial might do well to watch this, to realize just how often uncertainty reigns in these sorts of situations.
That means this is also a compelling look into the American justice system and all of the attendant whims that do or don't lead to conviction. It's just as easy to finish this series being absolutely certain that Peterson killed his wife as it is to finish it thinking he had nothing to do with what happened to her. But it's very hard to reach the finish line and not think, just a little bit, about how juries are asked to find a path toward complete certainty in cases where literally anything can be held up for doubt.
If nothing else, this is also a compelling character study. Michael Peterson is a deeply fascinating, even troubling figure, and The Staircase keeps a cool, collected approach to its central figure that makes him all the more intriguing. In some ways, this is a dissection of the man and his motivations, less about whether he committed murder than about what buttons it would take to push to make him do such a thing.
You'll know if you're in or out by ... the time Peterson finishes recounting his version of events. Your interest in this will live and die based on how interesting you find it to examine each and everything the central figure says, and here is your first chance to really do that.