After receiving well-deserved praise for "Making a Murderer," Netflix, and everyone else, has been looking for riveting true-crime tales. Still, give the streaming service credit for ingenuity in acquiring and simply building upon an existing one, "The Staircase," by adding a closing chapter to a story 17 years in the making.
Originally an eight-episode series in 2004, the program delved into the strange case of novelist Michael Peterson, who was charged with murder in the death of his wife, Kathleen, who was found dead at the bottom of the stairs three years earlier.
That trial took a series of unexpected twists and turns, built upon circumstantial evidence and revelations about Peterson's private life. He was ultimately sentenced to murder, before new information served as the foundation for a new trial -- and a two-hour follow-up in 2013, documenting his bid to secure one.
For Netflix, director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade picks up the thread 2 - years after Peterson's release, in July 2014, as he awaits word on whether North Carolina officials will seek to retry him. He's wearing an ankle bracelet, surrounded by grown kids who are now fully adults with concerns of their own, and clearly worn down from his incarceration and battle against the judicial system.
"He's become a very old man in a decade," Peterson's attorney, David Rudolf, observes of his client, now a septuagenarian.
There are additional surprises in these three fresh installments, which bring the total to 13. They include hiring a new defense lawyer who labels the case against Peterson "totally and grossly circumstantial," which doesn't provide the client with any assurance that he won't land back in prison.
The new episodes, frankly, aren't quite as crisp or compelling as the earlier ones. But de Lestrade's advantage is that his subjects -- primarily Peterson, who opens up in an extensive interview, but also his family and attorneys -- are by now completely comfortable around the documentary crew, and the court proceedings remain tense enough to carry the show through to its conclusion.
In a sense, Netflix has taken "The Staircase" and created a version of what it's done with scripted shows like "Arrested Development," "Full House," "Gilmore Girls" and "Black Mirror" -- namely, acquiring a property with built-in recognition and given it a fresh coat of paint. That's especially true here, inasmuch as the earlier iterations neatly flow into the new material, creating an experience with greater density for your bingeing pleasure.
Netflix has earned a reputation for throwing money around, which of course isn't necessarily the same thing as spending it wisely. In that regard, this three-tiered telling of "The Staircase" -- which builds, step by methodical step, on what transpired before -- is an extremely shrewd demonstration of getting maximum bang for its bucks.
"The Staircase" premieres June 13 on Netflix.
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