It might seem a little perverse to go looking for heartwarming family values in a documentary series about a man accused of beating his wife to death, but the Sundance Channel's The Staircase is at its core a moving, intimate look at a tight-knit clan pulling together in a time of crisis. The patriarch of that blended family just happens to be an accused murderer facing life in prison without parole, but that doesn't make his devotion to his mixed brood any less poignant. On the contrary, the violent, seemingly unresolvable contradictions are precisely what make the show's subject, Michael Peterson—Vietnam veteran, muckraking columnist, doting husband and father, bisexual, military fetishist, successful novelist, man of wealth and taste, and possible murderer—so unforgettable.
Directed by Academy Award-winner Jean-Xavier de Lestrade (Murder On A Sunday Morning), the series carefully, deliberately examines Peterson's high-profile defense and trial after he's charged with the first-degree murder of his wife. Peterson and his hotshot legal team contend that she died from a fatal tumble down the stairs, but the revelation of a mysterious death in Peterson's past—one that eerily parallels his wife's untimely passing—casts further doubt on his innocence. Peterson's bisexuality proves another crucial variable. Would introducing it into evidence help provide a motive for the killing, or merely prejudice a North Carolina jury against a guy who professes to have an idyllic marriage, but solicits gay male prostitutes online?
The first of The Staircase's eight hourlong episodes looks at the nuts-and-bolts details of mounting a defense; it's compelling, though a little dry. But by its second episode, the show has evolved into a riveting real-life soap opera assembled with the seamless, nearly invisible artistry of classic cinéma vérité. By devoting so much of its duration to the bespectacled, pipe-smoking, muscular, eloquent Peterson, his defense team and his family, The Staircase engenders a good deal of sympathy for the accused and especially for his family, while leaving the question of his guilt wide open. There's a surprising amount of humor in the series, as when a sassy male prostitute admits in court that his client base included many professionals, including attorneys and at least one judge, but the series' power, gravity, and urgency come because viewers are never allowed to forget that a man's life and a family's future is at stake.