The Staircase

TV review by
Marty Brown, Common Sense Media
The Staircase TV Poster Image
Groundbreaking true crime documentary is still compelling.

Parents say

age 18+
Based on 2 reviews

Kids say

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this TV show.

Positive Messages

The positive messages are ambiguous and dependent on viewer interpretation of the central crime. For example, the loyalty shown by Mike Peterson's family could be meaningful...unless you think he's guilty.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Who the positive role models are depend on the viewer's interpretation of the crime. The Peterson family, David Rudolph, or the district attorney's office could each be seen as a positive role model from different points of view.


The Staircase is about an alleged violent crime. Extremely graphic crime scene photos and videos are shown. The crime is discussed constantly throughout the series.


Pornographic pictures are shown onscreen as evidence, and sexual acts are discussed in detail.


Profanity is all over: "f--k," "f--king," "s--t," "d--k."

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Alcohol is a major part of the Peterson family's daily life, but no one gets drunk. There's a decent amount of smoking, and occasional mention of drugs.

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.

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Adult Written byLinea W. July 5, 2018

Graphic nudity and gore

This docuseries seemed very interesting but there was too much blood and gore and nudity for me to continue watching. The first episode shows graphic images of... Continue reading
Adult Written byctreese June 17, 2018

Interesting Premise, So graphic.

This would've been something we would've totally been interested in, but by episode two we saw graphic gay porn. Nothing blurred out. Everything. It w... Continue reading

There aren't any reviews yet. Be the first to review this title.

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?

TV details

  • Premiere date: October 7, 2004
  • Network: Netflix
  • Genre: Reality TV
  • TV rating: TV-14
  • Available on: Streaming
  • Last updated: November 11, 2020

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