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‘Staircase’ doesn’tmiss a step

Sundance Channel offers gripping look at murder trial
/ Source: The Associated Press

My verdict: “The Staircase” is one of the best TV programs I have ever seen.

Billed as a true-crime miniseries, it’s a cinematic fusion of reality show, legal drama and portrait of a man whose life is on the line. Along the way, it offers plenty of tabloid-worthy twists. But in the hands of Oscar-winning filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, “The Staircase” indulges the titillation value while rising to the level of art.

Let me be clear. I didn’t watch these eight episodes. I binged on them — then couldn’t get the series off my mind. Premiering on the Sundance Channel 9 p.m. EDT Monday (with additional airings throughout the week), “The Staircase” will be rationed in two hourlong episodes for four weeks. Caution: You may find a week’s wait between each fix much too long.

The series mines the aftermath of the death of Kathleen Peterson, a 48-year-old corporate executive and leading citizen of Durham, N.C.

Its first episode introduces her widowed husband Michael at home retracing for viewers the fateful events of Dec. 9, 2001. A novelist, former newspaper columnist and failed candidate for mayor, he had spent that evening with Kathleen celebrating news of a movie deal for one of his books. After preparing dinner and watching a rented film, they had toasted his success out by the pool. Then Kathleen excused herself to go back in the house.

“That was the last I saw Kathleen alive,” says Michael. Then he corrects himself. “No. She was alive when I found her — but barely.”

Police arriving at the scene found Kathleen lying dead in a puddle of blood at the foot of the living room stairs. Despite the medical examiner’s conclusion that the death was an accidental fall by someone who had been drinking, Michael, then 58, was charged with first-degree murder.

If you originally missed news of the trial and therefore come to “The Staircase” cold, you can expect a purer, more suspenseful viewing experience. But even if you followed the coverage and know how things end, don’t worry — you will still be sucked in. A gripping story like this, meticulously told, defies familiarity.

Michael's secret life
Early in episode one, you hear Michael’s agitated call to a 911 operator. You see video of the body at the bottom of the stairs. You hear family members speak of the loving, playful bond the grieving husband enjoyed with Kathleen, his second wife.

Then it emerges that Michael — an athletic, pipe-smoking Vietnam War veteran with a self-assured air — isn’t exactly who he seems to be. Searching his house, police find gay pornography on his computer. Had Kathleen stumbled on his secret life, driving him to silence her? And what about that $1.4 million insurance policy?

Released on $850,000 bond and potentially facing life without parole, Michael sets about preparing his defense. It’s a painstaking process with a price tag that eventually exceeds $750,000.

Meanwhile, rushing to his side are his two grown sons and Kathleen’s teenage daughter, as well as their two adopted daughters, 20 and 18 — all of whom display support, and voice no disapproval that he had been a lifelong bisexual with a philandering streak.

But what is the viewer to think?

The plot keeps thickening, and, perhaps, your loyalties keep shifting. Exposed: The death of an earlier acquaintance of Michael’s at the bottom of a staircase a continent away. A family member turns against him. And an object the prosecution claims is Michael’s murder weapon is mysteriously missing.

It’s no spoiler to say that the outcome will do little to bolster your faith in the legal process. But in recounting this tale, “The Staircase” will renew your faith that a reality series can meet the highest standards of drama.

Granted total access to Michael’s two-year ordeal, de Lestrade, who won a 2001 Oscar for his documentary “Murder on a Sunday Morning,” lets each scene unfold in its own time, driven by its own dramatic force. And he gives this tragedy an oddly effective touch: a string ensemble furnishes a dirgelike musical accompaniment.

But as tragic as the story is, it also has its lighter moments. At home awaiting the verdict in October 2003 after the five-month trial, Michael is poured a glass of wine by his brother Bill, who quips, “Enjoy it. It could be your last.” They both laugh heartily.

Gallows humor as a coping device? It’s just another eye-opening step on “The Staircase.”