TV

HBO Max’s ‘The Staircase’ More Than Justifies Its Existence While Expertly Dramatizing The True Crime Classic

The streaming realm has recently gifted us (for better or worse) with a glut of shows about scammers and tech gods, but those shows owe plenty of their granddaddy, the true crime genre. That’s the simmering mainstay behind the flashier trend, and for sure, the public’s fascination with true crime will never die. Streaming has, of course, made those stories much more accessible (and plentiful) in binge-friendly form, but one would be hard-pressed to find a more notorious-streamable classic than Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s The Staircase, which is currently on Netflix for the taking.

That docuseries surfaced back in 2004 with a few re-up installments, arriving as recently as 2018 to fill in the audience on legal developments regarding convicted novelist Michael Peterson. And it’s safe to say that, for many viewers including myself, people still find it difficult to draw any definitive conclusions regarding the role played by Michael in his wife’s death. After a lengthy North Carolina trial, he ended up serving nearly 15 years for the murder of his wife, Kathleen, who died in 2001 under mysterious and possibly extraordinary circumstances involving (as the title suggests) a staircase in the expansive family home. To this date, theories abound about what really happened to her, and the series fuels all the questions that still surround her bloody and violent demise.

Did Kathleen die as a result of a wine-tipsy fall, or did Michael bludgeon her to death, or was there *cough* a third party involved? And beyond the whodunnit aspect of this story, can a dramatized HBO Max miniseries add enough texture to justify its existence — without exploiting the victim and broadcasting her plight as sheer entertainment?

Let’s just say that I was slightly worried about how the dramatization would go, given that one of the trailers leaned into campiness at about the halfway point. Fortunately, my fear was misplaced because the campiness is mainly bound to the trailer as well as the theatrics of law enforcement and courtroom counsel. There’s still some camp there, perhaps to diffuse tension, and there are places where the tone felt a little bit “off” to me, but that’s probably because dramatization of true crime (as with the recent Dirty John seasons) has to walk a fine line. In the end, there’s a very different product here than the cinéma vérité presentation of Lestrade’s docuseries. However, both the O.G. series and the HBO Max version (helmed by Antonio Campos of The Devil All The Time) take great pains (at least in the first five episodes screened for critics) to never declare, “Yep, this is what the hell actually happened to Kathleen”). And given that we don’t know what the hell happened in real life, that’s appropriate.

The Staircase family shot
HBO Max

I must say, though, that watching Colin Firth — the guy who’s beloved for playing Mr. Darcy, both in a Jane Austen adaptation and those Bridget Jones movies — as a potential (manipulative) killer is wild. He’s giving a master class here, making the audience wonder what his seemingly contradictory personality traits and his slightest of wavering expressions could possibly mean. And as always, Toni Collette finds it impossible to turn in a subpar performance, which lends at least some respect for Kathleen’s memory, even if there’s some hefty speculation about how Kathleen reacted upon learning one of Michael’s secrets. That sort of loosey-goosey vibe could have backfired, but this dramatization allows for some enhanced speculation on various scenarios that seem at least halfway plausible about Kathleen’s final moments. These sequences, peppered throughout the episodes, are incredibly brutal to behold. That’s to be expected, given that Kathleen’s autopsy revealed a number of lacerations on her head. Obviously, the subject matter can be difficult to watch during occasional scenes.

So yes, the lead actors really climb into their roles from the inside out, and they carry this series home with all the subtle turns that one would expect. Likewise, the grown-up Peterson biological and adopted kids (played by Sophie Turner, Odessa Young, Patrick Schwarzenegger, Dane DeHaan, and Olivia DeJonge) get stepped-up accounts of what they were doing behind the trial-and-documentary scenes. And my goodness, Miss Parker Posey also has a grand time with her assistant DA role, Freda Black, whose procedural bent was questionable at best (and who died in 2019 from late-stage liver disease due to alcoholism). Add in the portrayal of corrupt, biased, and bigoted members of law enforcement and we’ve got ourselves quite a cast of characters. And although the show does recreate many of the docuseries’ scenes and heavily supplements with flashbacks, there’s a key addition that sets this production apart: Lestrade (who produces this HBO Max series) himself becomes part of the story. He’s portrayed by Vincent Vermignon, who unfurls the process by which he frames Michael’s perspective for the camera.

In other words, there’s a whole lot of dissection on how this crime was positioned by not only law enforcement and prosecutors but also by the documentary filmmakers (including producer Denis Ponce, portrayed by Frank Feys). Everyone’s got their competing version of what could have happened, and yet, no one (but Michael Peterson) knows what went down for sure. He was, for certain, a skilled liar in many facets of his life, and Firth does a remarkable job of diving through the dances that Micheal does, both in an attempt to save himself after the crime but also beforehand, when he was living a double life. Likewise, we finally get to know Kathleen beyond the home movies that the docuseries showed. Collette does a fantastic job of making sure that her character — and she surely went through hell — surfaces as much more than an object of obsession for a voyeuristic audience. That is to say, Kathleen was a fully-formed, complex person, rather than a figurative chalkboard drawing in a crime scene.

Since the limited series will run eight episodes, and I’ve seen five of them, I can’t say whether this show will end with any kind of definitive judgment on Michael’s actions surrounding Kathleen’s death. It feels certain, however, that Firth will continue to evaporate from view and truly emerge as Michael Peterson, down to his characteristic manner of speaking. It’s a haunting performance, and if you’ve seen the O.G. docuseries (currently streaming on Netflix), you will likely marvel at the resemblance. More than that, you’ll learn more about Kathleen, much more than archival footage could deliver. Don’t be afraid of this dramatization of your baby, true crime fans. The Staircase is in good hands.

HBO Max’s ‘The Staircase’ premieres three episodes on May 5, followed by weekly installments.

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