There are only two things in my life so momentous that they prompted me to write a letter. The first was when I realized that a restaurant group near my college was so preposterously dedicated to customer satisfaction that if you wrote them with any complaint whatsoever, they’d comp you a free meal. Literally anything. One time I wrote and told them my food was cold. Free meal. Another time, I said I’d gotten sick after eating their tomato soup. Free meal. The piece de resistance however was when I complained about wilted lettuce in a salad that came with one of my free meals, and they gave me an additional free meal. Insufferable, I know, but these are the things college kids do for free food. Eventually they caught on to my scam, which is why I am no longer welcome in at least a dozen restaurants in the greater DC area, but it was totally worth it. The only other thing to provoke such passion, to make me undertake the prehistoric acts of combining pen, paper, stamp and envelope was a documentary called The Staircase.
It’s hard to discuss The Staircase without revealing any spoilers, because it is so packed with twists, surprises, and amazing character revelations that to say almost anything is to give something away. As you saw in the clip, it begins with the death of suburban housewife in North Carolina that is related to injuries sustained while falling down a flight of stairs. Wow, that sentence was awkward. I actually had to look up someone’s else summary of the film to see how they phrased it, because every bit of syntax I chose gave something away. Especially the part about the aliens. OH GOD, I ruined the plot twist about the aliens! (I’m kidding. There is no plot twist about the aliens. But there is a theory involving a murderous owl that is pretty damn fantastic.) Ultimately this woman’s husband, Michael Peterson, is charged with her murder, and the documentary follows his trial in 8, hour-long, earth-shatteringly awesome episodes. So awesome that I wish I could erase them from my brain and see them again for the first time. While I’m in there, there’s a few other things I’d like to erase as well. That tomato soup letter, for one. I mean, is it even possible to get sick from tomato soup? Sigh. College.
There are some fantastic true-crime documentaries, don’t get me wrong. Capturing The Friedmans, The Thin Blue Line, and Paradise Lost are the usual headliners, and they’re great, but in my opinion The Staircase beats them all by a mile. You know that moment in every Dateline episode, where right before the commercial break Lester Holt says “But was there an even more shocking twist yet to come?” Then you inhale desperately and wait through the commercials in hysterics only to find out that Lester was kinda full of shit and the next twist wasn’t really shocking, and barely even a twist at all? OK, you probably don’t know that, because I’m the only jackass under 85 who watches Dateline, but still. The Staircase has those teases, and they all pay off. It’s remarkable. I can honestly say my gasp to episode ratio was at least four to one. That’s approaching Breaking Bad levels. Did I just say that? Damn right I did. Michael Peterson’s job, his family, his marriage, the forensic evidence–all fascinating. Even the testimony from the scientific experts is thrilling. I mean, come on. Scientific experts are the worst!
I wish I could go into more specifics about what makes the doc so fascinating, but as I said, I don’t want to give anything away. But after finishing the original series and seeing the verdict, I was shocked. So shocked, and angered, and unable to think about anything else, that I wrote the aforementioned letter…to Michael Peterson. I felt he needed to know my thoughts, feelings, and frustrations. I just had to get it all off my chest. I sent Mr. Peterson the letter via his lawyer, and I’m sure he’s read it daily ever since. Or never, because obviously I’m a lunatic. Years later, I still have no idea if the verdict was correct–and every time I discover someone who’s seen it, I corner them and discuss until one of us walks away. Usually, it’s them. OK, it’s always them. But honestly, it’s just that good.
Oh, and I forgot to mention the best part. Sundance is re-airing The Staircase now, with two new episodes detailing all that’s happened since the trial. Watch it. If you miss it there, get it on Netflix. I promise you won’t be disappointed.
And if you are, hey, you can always write me a letter.