More than most other true-crime series, The Staircase needed to do something special to distinguish itself. Even for a genre whose devotees will happily listen to three different podcasts about a single case, the Michael Peterson saga is well-trodden ground; in fact, the miniseries is based on Jean-Xavier de Lestrade‘s award-winning docuseries of the same name. On top of that, this year has seen an overwhelming glut of true-crime shows, with a new buzzy miniseries seemingly debuting every week. (Candy, The Girl from Plainville, The Thing About Pam, Under the Banner of Heaven – and those are just the ones involving murder cases.) If The Staircase wanted to stand out, it would need more than Colin Firth‘s American accent and a scene-stealing turn from Parker Posey. It needed an angle.
Thankfully, it had one. The Staircase is not just about the Michael Peterson case, but about the making of the original Staircase docuseries, which was made with extensive cooperation from Peterson and his defense team. As de Lestrade (Vincent Vermignon) gets the footage and information he needs from Peterson (Firth), showrunner Antonio Campos corrects some of the original series’ oversights while raising interesting questions of his own. Why does the victim Kathleen (Toni Collette) exist only in the abstract in the original docuseries? Can any documentation of the legal system be objective when it only has extensive access to the defense? What’s even the point of true crime media, where people with no connection to a given case pore over the details as though it’s the Kennedy assassination? But maybe the most interesting question was raised outside the show.
The filmmakers behind the original docuseries spoke out against The Staircase, which they claimed misrepresented the facts to make them look biased in favor of Peterson. Among other things, they said that they never asked Peterson to rephrase his statements during filming, and that Sophie Brunet, the editor who eventually had an affair with Peterson, only began meeting him after she left the documentary, not during filming as the show implies. . They have every right to be upset; after all: their credibility is being questioned on a popular HBO miniseries, and while there is a disclaimer that says the show is a dramatization, it comes after the credits. However, while they may or may not have a point, both the filmmakers’ portrayal of The Staircase and their response to that portrayal illustrate an interesting moral quandary in true crime media.
Thorny ethical questions have surrounded true crime since the days of In Cold Blood, and the genre’s recent boom has only made them more pressing. Is it right to turn a complex true story into a tidy narrative? How does one balance the need to humanize the perpetrator without dishonoring the victim? Is it right to repackage violent, traumatic crimes into casual entertainment for the morning commute? At what point does it stop serving a purpose beyond mere voyeurism? And the one question at the root of all these others: what does true crime media owe its real-life subjects?
There may not be an easy answer. Does true crime media need to be absolutely true to life? As The Staircase points out, that might not be possible: the circumstances of Kathleen Peterson’s death are so complicated and strange, with theories ranging from an owl attack to a hypothetical flying weapon, that no one knows for sure what happened that night. Does true crime need to treat real people with sympathy and respect? To some degree, certainly, but that’s a tricky balance to strike when you’re dealing with violent crime; besides, as Brunet’s affair with Peterson suggests, it’s possible to get too close to one’s subject.
What makes The Staircase‘s depiction of the filmmakers so interesting is that it takes these questions, usually applied to the victims and perpetrators of the crime in question, and applies them to the creators of the original docuseries – people who, unlike the subjects of most true-crime stories, are both alive and out of prison, and as such can speak freely against it. While de Lestrade and others protest that the show misrepresented their specific actions (coaching Peterson’s answers, editing the documentary to portray Peterson more sympathetically, etc.), the original docuseries is unquestionably slanted towards Peterson’s point of view, due to the simple fact that de Lestrade had access to Peterson’s defense team and not the prosecution. He likely did not have an agenda from the start, and he certainly was not malicious, but objective he was not. The Staircase may have made those infractions a little too obvious, but Campos was not wrong to point out the shortcomings inherent in a project like the docuseries.
Indeed, the fact that The Staircase points out the mistakes of Lestrade made justifies its existence. Beyond being a well-acted drama, it takes a case that has already been thoroughly analyzed and adds something new by analyzing the analyzers. Along the way, it reminds viewers that much of what they know from the original case may not have been objective truth, and may in fact have been massaged into a presentable form. In essence, it reminds the audience that they are not, in fact, flies on the wall, impassively watching reality unfold; they are interlopers, eavesdropping on a case that has nothing to do with them and will not affect them in any meaningful way.
Maybe what true crime media owes to its subjects, along with honesty and respect, is a purpose for its own existence. It’s disrespectful to a beaten memory to turn their death into something crass and lurid, but it’s equally disrespectful to turn it into a listless, by-the-numbers true-crime show that exists for an actress to put on a dowdy wig and win an Emmy. The greatest works of true crime, like The Thin Blue Line, I’ll Be Gone in the Darkand Making a Murderer, all have a reason to exist beyond being mere grist for the content mill: whether they’re addressing a broken legal system or peering inside the mind of a true crime writer, they have something to say. So does The Staircaseeven if de Lestrade might not like what it says.
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