Netflix's show opens old wounds – but while it may be many things, don't call it 'new'
People are calling The Staircase the new Making a Murderer – here's why they're wrong
True crime docu-series The Staircase, streaming now on Netflix, is being widely touted as “the new Making a Murderer”. However, like the claims regularly made in the true crime-docuseries format, that claim may not stand up in court.
To recap, Making a Murderer was a 10-part, 2015 investigation of the complex case surrounding convicted murderer Steven Avery, and it was a smash hit for Netflix. In 1985, Avery was convicted of the rape and attempted murder of Penny Beerntsen, despite flimsy evidence. In 2003, he was completely exonerated and released following new DNA evidence that identified the real criminal. Avery launched a multimillion-dollar law suit against his local Wisconsin sheriff’s office and district attorney for the unlawful imprisonment, only to find himself and his nephew, Brendan Dassey, arrested once more, this time for the murder of photographer Teresa Halbach.
Both men denied the crime – learning-disabled Dassey has already had his conviction, based on a coerced confession, overturned by numerous federal judges, yet remains in prison. Avery, meanwhile, was found guilty on the basis of blood found at the scene. Coincidentally or otherwise, an evidence box from his previous arrest had been tampered with, and a vial of blood removed for purposes unknown.
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The show was a huge success, and broadcasters have since been trying to replicate the formula – and its success – with a host of murders, kidnappings and assorted malicious deeds undergoing the now-standard treatment of multiple episodes, unprecedented access, showcasing incompetent or potentially obstructive legal systems, dramatic tension, morally ambiguous protagonists and a big reveal or twist each episode, putting the shows more in line with a murder-mystery drama than a traditional documentary.
The latest purported effort to succeed Making a Murderer is Netflix’s own The Staircase, which investigates the North Carolina death of Kathleen Peterson after an apparent fall down the staircase of the pair’s home, and the subsequent imprisonment of her husband Michael, a novelist and journalist, who was found guilty of her murder.
Much like many of the claims made in the trial, however, it is a little disingenuous to call the show “the new” anything. The Staircase is, if anything, “the old Making a Murderer.”
The bulk of the documentary series – eight of the 13 episodes – currently streaming on Netflix as a Netflix Original is actually Jean-Xavier De Lestrade’s 2004 series The Staircase, a forerunner of the now ubiquitous true crime docu-series genre that could reasonably be said to have partially laid the groundwork for the current trend. There’s nothing new about the documentary format, but to dedicate so much time and go into so much detail on just one crime was trailblazing in 2004.
The ninth and 10th episodes, meanwhile, are Lestrade’s 2012, two-hour follow-up, which he made when Peterson was released from prison pending a retrial, after the revelation that a key prosecution witness had faked evidence in numerous trials. Finally, episodes 11 to 13, the truly “original” part of the series, unite Lestrade with a now septuagenarian Peterson. The writer is under house arrest as he debates whether to issue an “Alford plea” – essentially refusing to admit guilt, but admitting that the court had enough evidence to convict, thereby removing any possibility of recompense for false imprisonment – or push for a full retrial, which could see him returned to prison for what remains of his life.
The Staircase may not be entirely original, then, but its earlier episodes have not been widely viewed previously. Lestrade’s efforts were well received at festivals and screened on niche channels including BB4 in the UK, Canal+ in France and the Sundance Channel in the US, but these are hardly outlets that offer the same platform as Netflix. The slightly misleading Netflix Original tag certainly doesn’t detract from a fascinating story, and the new episodes shed new light on an enduring mystery, while bringing it to a much wider audience.
The final verdict
We don’t want to tread in spoiler territory, but the show’s twists and turns should keep you both transfixed and conflicted. Just when we learn that a key prosecution witness had demonstrably faked evidence in multiple cases, it transpires that Peterson had lied about his service history in Vietnam and was involved in multiple extra-marital affairs. And when we discover that the local police and district attorney had a tangible vendetta against Peterson because of his frequently critical columns in the local paper, it is revealed that a former friend of Peterson’s had died in remarkably similar circumstances years before, and Peterson was the last man to see her alive. We’re never really sure who to believe – even an owl briefly becomes a suspect at one point in the tangled web that Lestrade skilfully weaves.
The Staircase may not quite live up to its billing, then, but it’s detailed, intricate, convoluted and bewildering – and well worth a watch. If you really must have “the new Making a Murderer,” we can recommend Making a Murderer 2, which is due later this year.