The Staircase Murders


8-10 p.m., Sunday, April 15

What is it about guys named Peterson who murder their wives? Petersen, Peterson, it's all the same. Ladies, beware: do not marry a guy with any permutation of that surname. Or even one with the first name of Peter, for that matter, just to be safe.

I know this to be true after watching "The Staircase Murders," a surprisingly good fact-based telepic that features strong performances and sharp production values.

Not that there is a whole lot of mystery connected to the dramatization of the real-life case. This is airing on Lifetime, let's remember. Do you think this network is going to run a docudrama about a man who is found not guilty of killing a woman? Yeah, good luck on that one.

All the same, the Lionsgate telefilm is constructed with savvy and a notable attention to detail, beginning with the jarring amount of blood found at the crime scene (mommys, don't let your little girls watch this). And Treat Williams is so convincing as a sanctimonious, narcissistic, unctuous sociopath that it really is difficult to take your eyes off of him. It provides a lesson not only in denial as a defense strategy but in how defense lawyers distance themselves from truth -- perhaps in order to get up every morning and look at themselves in the mirror.

Kevin Pollak is terrific as Peterson's attorney David Rudolf, a man who doesn't want to know if his client is guilty or innocent so long as the lies and eruptions don't throw him off of his game. It speaks volumes about the American system of criminal jurisprudence.
Rudolf really is the straw that stirs this drink, and Pollak is more than up to the task. He's a wolf in sheep's clothing, a guy who pretends to be all about getting to the truth but who in the end sells out in pursuit of a verdict that proves elusive.

The story is pretty simple: Michael Peterson is a best-selling novelist who appears to be heartbroken by the death of his socialite wife Kathleen in 2001 after she falls down a flight of stairs in their suburban home in a purported drunken stupor. Burt the signs of foul play quickly surface. The evidence shows his wife had been dead a good long time before Michael bothered to dial 911. And fissures appear in their perfect upscale life together, such as his possible sexual interest in men and massive financial hardships. Oh, and then there was this other death involving a woman falling down a flight of stairs. Accident or murder? When push comes to shove, the signs start pointing to Peterson helping with a push and a shove.

Peterson's family is split by the doubts of stepdaughter Caitlin (exceptional work from "The O.C.'s" Samaire Armstrong). And so full of hubris is Peterson that he allows a documentary crew to follow his life throughout his ordeal fighting the murder rap, which turns out to be a mistake of grand proportions.

Again, "Staircase Murders" (based on the book "The Perfect Husband" by co-producer Aphrodite Jones) is fairly standard-issue woman-is-wronged-by-man Lifetime fare. But it's lent significant juice by the work of the actors and the extra care demonstrated by scribe Donald Martin and director Tom McLoughlin, who elevate the drama a clear cut above.

The Staircase Murders
Lionsgate and Lifetime Television
Credits: Executive producer: Judy Polone; Producer: Judy Cairo; Co-producer: Aphrodite Jones; Screenwriter: Donald Martin; Director: Tom McLoughlin; Based on the book "The Perfect Husband" by: Aphrodite Jones; Director of photography: Lloyd Ahern II; Production designer: Bill Arnold; Editor: Marshall Harvey; Music: Joseph Loduca; Casting: John Papsidera, Shay Griffin. Cast: Michael Peterson: Treat Williams; Caitlin Atwater: Samaire Armstrong; David Rudolf: Kevin Pollak; Erica: Kate Donadio; Todd: Brandon Olive; Margaret: Laura Bailey; Clayton: Kyle Clements; Martha: Stephanie Honore; Bill: Ric Reitz; Kathleen: Nina Jones; Detective Joe Castell: Brett Rice.

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