The mockumentary genre received a huge fillip last year with the breakout Netflix hit American Vandal, which looked into whether a high school prankster was responsible for spray-painting penises on a bunch of faculty cars parked on the school premises.
American Vandal was funny because it treated a light, even unimpressive, topic with the utmost seriousness. Two boys on the high school’s media team acted as investigators interviewing students and members of the faculty as well as coming up with and earnestly examining theories on who could have been the perpetrator.
It is perhaps the success of another mockumentary that prompted Netflix to screen The Staircase, a 2004 true-life documentary that covered the trial of North Caroline-based novelist Mike Peterson, who was accused of murdering his wife Kathleen in 2001.
The case, which went to trial in 2003, was a media sensation at the time for a number of reasons. The nature of Kathleen’s injuries indicated that the death was the result of more than a fall down the staircase (Peterson’s explanation for the death). Besides, the manner of Kathleen’s death was suspiciously similar to that of another acquaintance of Mike when he lived in Germany in the 1980s.
It was Peterson’s idea to have a film crew capture the proceedings of the trial in order that the record be maintained. The Staircase, which released eight episodes during its original run, was updated in 2011. In early June, Netflix released the entire series with two new episodes.
Peterson was sentenced to life in prison without parole based on a lengthy trial that brought out several strands of his private life, such as his bisexuality. The Staircase meticulously covers every detail of the trial, including footage on how private investigators hired by Peterson arrived at their claims of his innocence. All of that ultimately failed to convince the jury.
In 2011, the case went for retrial after it was revealed that Duane Deaver, a public official who had made a key testimony against Peterson, had a history of padding evidence against the accused. The retrial too dragged on until in 2017, Peterson accepted a guilty plea in return for escaping prison. (He had already been incarcerated for eight years.)
The uncanny nature of the case, with its many twists and turns, inspired a 2017 NBC parody whose first season is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video. Trial & Error stars John Lithgrow as Larry Henderson, an East Peck, South Carolina-based poet, who, like Peterson, is charged with the murder of his wife.
Josh Segal (Nicholas D’Agosto), an attorney from New York, is deputed to look into the case, which will examine if Henderson pushed his wife through the plate-glass window in their living room, resulting in her death. Segal’s northeastern origins are a running gag on the show, mining differences in cuisine, ways to tackle crime, and what one character categorically refers to as “their slyness”.
The show’s comedy stems from Henderson’s cluelessness about how to conduct himself before a public baying for his blood. His innocence may be moot but his regard for everything save his wife’s death – he interrupts the 911 call informing the authorities of the news to check if the cable guy has arrived – makes Segal’s task excruciating.
Interestingly but damagingly, Segal’s lead investigator is called Dwayne Reed (Steven Boyer), whose inefficacy at detective work induces much regrettable laughter, as the viewer gingerly comes to the realisation that his real-life namesake was responsible for the half-truths that ensured Peterson’s conviction.
It is this commingling of the absurd and the barely plausible that gives the show its heft. The details of Peterson’s case – the homosexual angle, the earlier death, the botched investigation – provide for surprisingly rich material for wackiness. Even as it introduces new narrative tangents, Trial & Error throws into sharp relief the grimness from which it derives its levity.