Death on the Installment Plan

Sundance’s eight-part series The Staircase is a reminder of how good TV can be.

As a TV critic, it’s not often that I get the chance to write about a truly remarkable work of art. Like the parent of a lovable underachiever, I often find myself apologizing for the medium: Hey, this is so bad it’s kind of good! And this is slightly less terrible than anticipated! But starting tonight for every Monday in April, Sundance Channel will be airing The Staircase(Mondays, 9 p.m. ET), an eight-part documentary about an American murder trial by the French director Jean Xavier de Lestrade, who won an Oscar in 2002 for another courtroom documentary, Murder on a Sunday Morning. Whether you’re a television person or not, and even if you flinch at the culture of true-crime novels and Court TV trial coverage, tonight’s back-to-back episodes will leave you disturbed, fascinated and—most important to television programmers everywhere—seriously jonesing to see next week’s installment of The Staircase.

The film, which runs over six hours in its entirety, is an account of the Peterson murder trial—no, not that Peterson. In December 2001, Michael Peterson, a novelist and newspaper columnist, called 911 in hysterics to report that his wife Kathleen, a successful executive at Nortel, had fallen down the stairs of their Durham, N.C., home. But when the cops arrived at the scene, the extensive blood-spatter patterns on the staircase, along with evidence recovered from Michael Peterson’s computer, seemed to contradict his story. Within a week, Peterson had been charged with first-degree murder and had retained the services of a charismatic and expensive defense attorney named David Rudolf. The film accompanies the preparation of Peterson’s defense over a period of two years, finding drama in the minute details of the legal profession. A scene in which Rudolf’s PowerPoint program goes wonky the night before opening arguments is as hair-raising as the larger twists and turns in the case (any one of which makes C.S.I or Law & Order look like the tamest of Miss Marple mysteries).

Like a great novel, The Staircase slowly expands in concentric rings of meaning; by the end of the second hour, it’s become clear that Lestrade is telling a story, not only about what happened on the staircase that night, but about class, justice, sexuality, and the elusiveness of truth. As soon as the viewer comes up with a workable theory about Kathleen’s death, a new and completely surprising piece of evidence comes along to demolish it. My viewing companion and I were arguing about Michael Peterson’s guilt or innocence right up to the last installment and beyond. If you get cable, do yourself a favor; skip tonight’s airing of The Unauthorized Story of Mork and Mindy (though come to think of it, that might be chilling in its own way) and remind yourself of just how good television can be. … 10:28 a.m.