The question be put crudely: Did she fall or was she pushed? Certainly, Kathleen Peterson was found dead at the bottom of the stairs. What happened to Peterson on a December night in 2001 has been the focus of much scrutiny. In fact, this case can be seen as the origin-story of the true-crime documentary genre.
Kathleen’s husband, novelist and newspaper columnist Michael Peterson, was the suspect in the case from the get-go. And soon after the indictment, Oscar-winning French director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade and a crew were given access to Peterson and his defence team. Everything was documented with an attention to thoroughness and detail that was, at the time, highly unusual.
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The eight-hour documentary, The Staircase, aired in Europe in 2004, later in the U.S. and won a Peabody Award. It’s considered a classic and many other now-familiar series, from Making a Murderer onward, mimicked its method and tone. In 2013, de Lestrade returned to the case, which had so many twists it demanded more attention. Three new hours were added and on Netflix you get the full 13-episode story.
The Staircase (HBO, streams Crave) is new, a dramatization of the case. Yes, it is so bewildering and thorny it continues to fascinate and commands yet another bout of scrutiny. Colin Firth plays Michael Peterson and does it with a rare kind of skill. If you think the case has been mined enough already, your mind is changed by Firth’s extraordinary subtlety as a man of many secrets and delusions.
Unlike the doc series – which becomes part of the drama here, with de Lestrade and his crew becoming key characters – the new series doesn’t focus so closely on Peterson and his lawyers. It opens the story out to present Kathleen (Toni Collette) as a woman weary of nurturing a blended family – her kids and Michael’s – and mentally racked by knowing about her husband’s other life as a bisexual with male lovers. As the trial and then retrial go on and on, the family splinters, with some remaining loyal to Michael and others at first suspicious and then repulsed.
Although Firth anchors it with a gripping opaqueness, it’s an ensemble drama (eight episodes, three available now) that has weight both as a mystery and a treatment of the vagaries of the U.S. legal system. Also, you could say, the vagaries of perception, something Michael Peterson understands fully. Adapted by Antonio Campos and Maggie Cohn, it’s first-rate, this daring and Emmy-ready drama about what is really an unsolvable case.
Also airing/streaming this weekend – Tehran (streams AppleTV+) returns for a second season.
The first batch of episodes of this Israeli espionage drama was one of great treats of 2020. Tense, terse, slick and carefully adding humanity to its story of Mossad agent Tamar Rabinyan (Niv Sultan), sent to Tehran to neutralize a radar system and enable Israel’s air force to bomb Iran’s nuclear reactor. As twisted as it is, the story (in English, Hebrew and Farsi, with subtitles) never forgets to give us some depth of feeling about all the players, no matter which side they are on.
The first season ended with several double-crosses and betrayals. The Iranian intelligence officer Faraz (superbly played as a complex, wily figure by actor Shaun Toub) had chased down Tamar. But Tamar escaped with sidekick Milad into the Tehran night as the Israeli mission was a debacle. Now Tamar is stuck there, but having been born in Iran is no safety device. Glenn Close joins the cast as the boss who must persuade or manipulate Tamar into a new, dangerous way of completing that thwarted mission.
Also note the arrival of The Big Conn (streams AppleTV+), a four part docu-series that is, yes, about a scam artist. Here it’s Eric C. Conn, a Kentucky lawyer who over many years conducted a social security scam that earned him more than halfa billions dollars (U.S.). This isn’t a subtle treatment of the story. Conn was good ol’ boy – popular, gregarious and famous for his TV and radio ads. Much married, he was, at one point, in league with judges and U.S. social security officials, and part of the thrust of the story is the sheer complexity of the government system and the inadequate oversight. What did Conn get way with? That story involves porn stars, voodoo dolls and private jets. No, seriously, it does.
Finally, if true crime or espionage is not your thing, be aware of Wild Babies (streams Netflix). New in Neflix’s hi-def nature showcase, it features narration by Helena Bonham Carter, talking only about baby animals in the wild. If that dreamy, whispering voice doesn’t soothe you, along with the cute critters, then nothing can.
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