What to stream this weekend: Bananas docudrama The Staircase steps it up
Descend into Netflix's addictive and skin-crawling 13-part doco before visiting the Wild, Wild Country this weekend.
I've been on a crime-doco spree lately and I'm taking you along for the ride, as an accessory of sorts. Trust me when I say you'll be glued to your screen every step of the way in The Staircase (available on Netflix). Unlike last week's recommended watch – the bleated-justice cold-case-solver that was Wrong Man – what we have here is a 13-parter that's an addictive and often skin-crawling watch.
This is an incredibly in-depth, behind-the-scenes look at the literal trials and tribulations of novelist Michael Peterson. In 2001 he came inside from a late night drink to find his wife, Kathleen, barely conscious and covered in blood at the base of the titular staircase. The authorities were called and the gory scene immediately made the first-responders suspect foul play.
Sure enough, the medical examiners concluded that Mrs Peterson had been attacked with a weapon (though none could be found). To add fuel to this fire, a search of the house and Michael's PC revealed that this wasn't the perfect marriage that was being projected. Not by a very long shot.
You have my curiosity but what else happens?
It's important to note that I'm writing this at the exact halfway of the series (I have also resisted the urge to cheat via Google or Wikipedia). Up until this point in the binge-watch, my personal scales of justice have see-sawed violently from innocent to guilty and back again. It's also worth doing The Staircase as a social watch – in my house, there's been much mid-episode pausing and evidence debate. At the time of writing, my living-room jury is deadlocked at a 50/50 standstill.
The human lie detectors among us don't buy Michael's detached, matter-of-fact attitude when recreating or remembering the death of his supposed soulmate. Then there's the question of his character: it's revealed that he has built a career by lying about a Vietnam combat wound, plus he was living a secret bisexual double-life that he insists his wife endorsed. Kathleen's friends and family dispute this take, saying it would be extremely uncharacteristic of her to be ok with a husband who hooks up for “no strings attached” sex with men met online (the dalliance count is listed as seven different dudes).
On the other hand, Michael and his supporting older brother paint a pretty convincing picture of being targeted by the systemic corruption of Durham County. Along with his novels, Michael wrote as a columnist for the local rag and was vocal about the ineptitude of local law enforcement (easy to do when they have a clear-rate of 5% of all cases). Along with the usual endemic homophobia that's ingrained in the South of the US, it's clear that Michael is also in the crosshairs of powerful people he's pissed off. The crime-scene work is iffy and the law is going to considerable efforts and expense to box him in.
What's the format?
Speaking of crazy expenditures: the format of The Staircase essentially embeds you the viewer into Michael's blood-sucking, multi-lawyer defence team. And this is where the skin crawl comes in. Michael is prepped and preened by a stream of dead-eyed experts who park what few morals they have in order to do what they do best – shore up the innocence-factor of their client and manipulate the emotions of jurors. Kathleen – a loving mother, and by all reports a warm and generous human being – quickly becomes an abstract thing, a prop in a high-stakes, pay-to-win legal stoush.
Does it stay gripping? You bet. Just as the pace starts to dip, the defence is hit by a massive curveball. 17-years ago, Michael's close friend and neighbour – the mother of two children he would later come to adopt – was found dead at the foot of some stairs. I'll not spoil much more than that...
What if I want more, post-watch?
If you've got a hankering for some more true crime, the Evil Genius docuseries on Netflix should be right up your alley.
In August 2003, an attempted bank robbery in Pennsylvania made news headlines across America when the robbery-gone-wrong turned into a public murder.
The wannabe thief became known as the “pizza bomber” because he was a delivery driver who had a bomb affixed to his neck. In the ensuing madness that followed police nabbed Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong for the delivery man's death, a crime for which she was sentenced to life. But, as always, the deeper you get into this four-parter series the murkier that justice becomes. In no time you're in conspiracy town, population: almost everybody.
Wild, Wild Country
Alternatively, avid Netflix sleuths would be well-advised to examine Wild, Wild Country. This documentary centres on the strange tale of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, a controversial Indian guru who tries to set up a utopian city in the Oregon desert. Though the land is fairly useless, the impromptu metropolis draws the attention of local ranchers and a violent conflict begins.
It won't take too many episodes for this 6-parter to ramp up into bio-terror attacks, illegal wiretapping and just an all-round national scandal. This is an absolutely riveting watch. A battle between an international herd of interloping peace-love-and-mungbean nutjobs versus bullish, conventional and conservative rednecks. Place your bets.
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