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A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this TV show.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that The Staircase is a true crime documentary about a woman who may or may not have died from a fall down the stairs. Michael Peterson, a Vietnam vet, writer and former mayoral candidate is accused of beating his wife Kathleen to death. He claims her death was an accident. This unsettling series follows Peterson, his team of attorneys, and his family as he stands trial for murder. Violence is discussed, especially the graphic nature of Kathleen's death; older teens and grownups intrigued by true crime are the best audience for this documentary.
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What's the story?
On December 9, 2001, writer and Vietnam war veteran Michael Peterson called 911 for an ambulance because, he said, his wife, Kathleen, fell down the stairs and wasn't breathing. When the police arrived at his house, they looked at the scene and immediately suspected foul play. Peterson was arrested and accused of beating his wife to death. THE STAIRCASE follows Michael Peterson, his family, and his legal team, as he's tried for murder. Slowly, all of Peterson's personal secrets are revealed, and his family is forced to choose sides according to whether or not they believe he is a killer.
Is it any good?
True crime documentaries are popular right now, and The Staircase, the first 8 episodes of which originally aired in 2005, is credited as being one of the early reasons why. After many years and imitators, it remains a uniquely powerful and extremely unsettling show that uses none of the "tricks" that more recent crime shows use. For example, the documentarian himself doesn't end up becoming involved with the story, as they do in The Jinx or Evil Genius; and because The Staircase wasn't beholden to typical television formatting, it doesn't build toward twists and reveals in each episode. That can take some getting used to.
Instead, The Staircase is less entertainment, and more of a "pure" documentary. Its power comes from getting know the charismatic Michael Peterson intimately, understanding his trial and defense, and meeting his family, all without ever really knowing whether or not he beat his wife to death. Because of this, it can be very hard to watch. Yet, somehow, Peterson's decade-old trial manages to be extremely relevant to our American present, touching on issues like homophobia, racism, and misogyny, and ultimately painting a unique and intricate portrait of how the American criminal justice system works... or doesn't.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about Kathleen's death. What do you think happened? Does your opinion change from episode to episode in The Staircase?
What impression does The Staircase give of the American justice system? Does Michael get a fair trial? Why or why not? Why does it matter whether or not Michael gets a fair trial?
Families can talk about bias. Do you think the people who made this series have an opinion on Peterson's guilt? What do you think it is? How can you tell?
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