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HBO Max's The Staircase is like staring into an infinity mirror of true-crime

  • "The more you watch it, the more idly transfixed you become by the illusion — and simultaneously perplexed by its existence in the first place," says Jess Joho of HBO Max's scripted adaptation of The Staircase docuseries. "Fascinating, nauseating, and a slog all at once, the 2022 true crime drama starring Colin Firth and Toni Collette should not be confused with the wildly popular 2004 documentary series of the same name that this fictionalized show is based on. It also should not be confused with the original docuseries' sequel, The Staircase II, or any of the countless re-releases over the past two decades across various networks and platforms — the latest being Netflix's 2018 13-episode version combining all previously released footage with a couple hours' worth of updates." Joho adds: "To call The Staircase a 'true crime classic' is to accurately describe the total dehumanization process that every single real-life person connected to this awful death underwent during their decades in the public eye. But the HBO Max dramatization feels like the final stage of this tragedy-exploitation machine. It not only reduces Kathleen, Michael, and their kids (one of whom is played by Game of Thrones' Sophie Turner) into literal fictional characters for our entertainment consumption, but even adds colorful new personalities like real-life prosecutor Freda Black (portrayed by the inimitable Parker Posey). It's uniquely grotesque to watch this star-studded cast re-enact the well-worn story beats of this brutal case, especially because of how their immense talents can turn these IRL people into such compelling characters."


    • Unlike most true-crime limited series, The Staircase challenges its viewers to think critically, particularly when it comes to the original docuseries: "In prestige television today, the go-to source material is true crime, most narrativized already by journalists, podcasters and documentarians," says Inkoo Kang. "Just since February, we’ve gotten the scammer tales Inventing Anna and The Dropout, the murder mysteries The Thing About Pam and Under the Banner of Heaven, and revisits of life-altering legal woes like Pam & Tommy, Joe vs. Carole and The Girl From Plainville. On the whole, these shows are packed with A-listers but middling in quality; save for a few exceptions, they tend to be low on fresh insights and real surprises. Against that lackluster standard, HBO Max’s dramatization of The Staircase — based on the French docuseries of the same name, which first debuted stateside in 2005 and added updates in 2013 and 2018 — is at least notable for trying something new. In contrast to most of its peers, the well-acted yet droopily paced eight-part miniseries challenges its audience to think more critically about its nonfiction predecessor, the storytelling choices it made and why."
    • Colin Firth hasn't been this good since the film A Single Man: "Losing himself in Peterson, who's sort of a tainted Mr. Darcy, he does a spectacular job of conjuring up a man who's charismatic, erudite, slippery and entitled — he's sure the justice system will be on his side," says John Powers. "Big mistake. In fact, both versions of The Staircase detail the workings of a justice system filled with pricey lawyers, ambitious district attorneys, bickering experts and appeals to a jury's cultural biases that may have nothing to do with the evidence or even the case at hand."
    • Firth feels a bit too handsome and wholesome to play a potential murderer at first, but he effectively imbues Michael with sleaze: "He’s fascinating to watch it only because it’s such a departure for him," says Kelly Lawler. "But besides the award-winning older cast, which also includes Rosemarie DeWitt as Kathleen's sister and Juliette Binoche as Michael's new girlfriend, it's the young actors who make the show addictive. They're a showcase of millennial talent, and Schwarzenegger and Young, especially, prove themselves up to the task of tackling emotionally complex material."
    • There's method to the madness in The Staircase: "This take on The Staircase thus becomes as much about the media filter through which the case was seen as the actual events, at times painstakingly replicating the grainy look of the original with actors standing in for the characters," says Brian Lowry. "The result is a production that constantly seems to be reassessing what we know, versus what we might think or assume, about what transpired." He adds: "Normally, a project that felt this inherently messy would be a bit frustrating. With The Staircase, though, there’s method to the madness, as it seeks to capture the story with all its intricacies, and the sometimes elusive pursuit of putting the truth in true crime."
    • The Staircase is a sly study of why we assign guilt and innocence: "The Staircase indulges the now-standard question driving most true-crime stories — guilty or not guilty — and but also asks if, some of the time, we can know either conclusion with enough certainty," says Ben Travers. "As is inevitable with two shows covering much of the same ground, many of the points overlap, and those who’ve seen the docuseries may not need to watch the HBO Max adaptation (or may grow frustrated with another iteration of the Peterson saga lacking definitive proof). But the slick structure, winking commentary on true-crime culture, and a killer performance from Colin Firth, among others, make The Staircase a gripping and nimble successor. It’s also a broader examination told through three distinct timelines."
    • The Staircase rises above the slew of true-crime shows this spring: "I know it’s probably too late for me to tell you this, but the best way to watch HBO Max’s The Staircase is probably to have seen the documentary several years ago," says Daniel Fienberg. "That way you have enough of a sense of the story to appreciate how Campos, writer of the premiere and director of all of the episodes I’ve seen, and co-showrunner Maggie Cohn are building the mystery similarly, while still being somewhat surprised when secrets and variations emerge. There are layers of pleasant dramatic irony that come from being aware of certain pieces of information that are held back — complications of Michael’s sexuality, the parentage of each of the kids, details from their respective pasts — and seeing how they’re being held back from members of the family, various attorneys, the documentary crew and viewers."
    • Firth's performance is a low-key triumph: "Firth’s simmering interpretation of this extremely dodgy personality is a low-keyed triumph, and takes care of your needs straight off, primarily by not making the armchair guessing game of Peterson’s guilt or innocence too easy. (Oddly, the documentary’s copious footage of Peterson across the years tips things far more clearly toward: Do not believe this man.) If director Campos had prioritized finding someone more physically akin to Peterson, he’d have gone for someone like John C. McGinley, a first-rate actor who tends to play a character’s inner tensions on the surface. Firth, fully engaged and on his game here, creates a man not so much multifaceted as blandly inscrutable, weirdly chipper and, in the end, a riddle even to himself."
    • Firth is the linchpin for The Staircase: "Best known for playing romantic leads and other charismatic types, he disappears, here, into a far murkier character," says Judy Berman. "In Lestrade’s series, which fascinated Firth, Peterson comes off as a series of near-contradictions: an erudite, introspective author and a belligerent narcissist; a devoted family man sneaking around with potential male lovers; a community leader and a true oddball. Firth captures everything from his halting speech patterns to his flashes of anger, disappearing deep enough into the character that (unlike Viola Davis as Michelle Obama in The First Lady or Jared Leto as Adam Neumann in WeCrashed) the casting never feels like a gimmick. Neither evil nor especially likable, his version of Michael clearly has a dark side. The question is: how dark? Liberated from the constraints of the documentary format, this Staircase digs into characters its predecessor didn’t have the access to fully explore—essentially, everyone besides Michael and his unflappable defense attorney, David Rudolf (a perfectly cast Michael Stuhlbarg)."
    • Creator Antonio Campos makes a lot of interesting decisions in The Staircase: "From its larger meta-frameworkfor those viewers who aren’t turned off by the camera passively observing Collette’s gurgling death rattles, The Staircase does shore up the case for its own existence as it goes along," says Katie Rife. "This is particularly true when dramatized versions of the French film crew that made the original Staircase enter the narrative: Although there are still moments of something that skews uncomfortably close to fandom, revelations about the making of The Staircase cast everything that came before in a new light. De Lestrade’s version of The Staircase is sometimes cited as the pinnacle of true-crime documentary filmmaking, a serious-minded exploration of big ideas about justice filmed in a detached cinéma vérité style that purports to simply present the facts of the case in a balanced way. By that metric, Campos’ approach feels distinctly the opposite: speculative, shocking, and built to entertain. But there were serious breaches of documentary ethics behind the scenes of de Lestrade’s Staircase that alter the moral balance between the two works. Campos pulls off a skillful meta-trick weaving these into his narrative, filming the first few episodes with a bias toward Michael Peterson’s side of the story, then showing why the makers of the documentary might themselves have been biased."
    • The Staircase subtly brings out great performances from other heavyweights, while giving many of them a distinct look: "The series’ hair and make-up efforts make familiar faces like Rosemarie DeWitt, Juliette Binoche, and Parker Posey bizarrely difficult to recognize, paired with the cinematography’s high contrast lighting and pervasive shadows," says Nick Allen. "(It’s not always raining in this show but it might as well be indoors.) Campos creates an uncanniness that draws you in more, and then he blocks numerous gruesome living room and kitchen table dialogue scenes so specifically, you can watch any character’s reaction to another and see a certain story that has been unspoken. The ensemble work in this series is a veritable feast, of calibrated performances, framing and editing, scene after scene."
    • Colin Firth and Toni Collette are, as you might expect, brilliant: "The former is slippery and arrogant, putting in a performance that teeters on so many brinks – deeply loving yet coercive with family, paralysed with grief yet sociopathically detached, self-indulgent yet narcissistic – that you cannot help watching to see if and which way he will fall," says Lucy Mangan. "Collette is given less to work with, but nevertheless conjures it into an impressive turn as a loving wife periodically placed in impossible situations. We see her navigating rough domestic waters and divided loyalties in a weary, occasionally desperate way many will recognize."
    • It's surprising that The Staircase lives up to its title: "The true-crime tale has lately dominated scripted TV, with miniseries-length dissections of infamous incidents coming thick on the ground," says Daniel D'Addario. "Many of these shows have played as flat reenactments that don’t earn the running time they demand, serials that seem to be more interested in checking items off a list to get us to an opinion about 'what really happened' than in finding something transformative in a familiar story. So it comes as a surprise that HBO Max’s The Staircase does exactly what its title implies, taking the audience beyond the first level and reaching for a second, elevated story."
    • Rosemarie DeWitt had to overcome "some qualms" before joining The Staircase: Rosemarie DeWitt, who plays Kathleen’s sister Candace, said “I couldn’t wait to work with Antonio (Campos), but the ethics of retelling the story and traumatizing the family again were difficult.”
    • Showrunners Antonio Campos and Maggie Cohn wanted to tell the story from Kathleen Peterson's perspective: "Well, right away there was a big void in the documentary, which is Kathleen Peterson. So it felt like if you were going to dramatize this story, you had to understand Kathleen and who she was," says Campos. "So right there, it was like, let’s try to understand what led up to the night of her death. Then there was this story that starts the night of her death and goes until the big turning point in 2011. Then there’s 2017, the future, and there’s an event that happens on that day that concludes this epic journey, but almost raises more questions in the end. So it just felt like each one of these things deserve their own beginning, middle and end. But they all were speaking to each other — the past, the present and the future." Cohn says putting the documentarians in the show was always going to be part of the story: "Yeah, from the very beginning of it. Because it always felt like, if you’re going to tell the story of The Staircase and the Michael Peterson case, you had to include the documentarians," she says. "They were there, they were part of the fabric of the story."
    • Cohn points out that the documentary-film story line should challenge viewers to question what they’re being told, by both the original docuseries and the miniseries: “You get to take documentary filmmaking as a device within our show and use it to comment on what we’re doing as storytellers,” says Cohn. “We’re giving you pieces of information selectively and you believe it’s part of the true-crime genre, which it is. But what is the truth? Because we’re the ones telling you what you’re going to be fed, and through the editorial process, how you’re going to perceive it. So it really was just this great way to explore the theme of our show, which is the nature of storytelling and the nature of truth.”
    • How Campos was impacted by watching The Staircase docuseries: "I saw the docuseries in 2008 when I was sent it on DVD by a producer who was interested in adapting it into a feature," he says. "He told me three things about it: One was that the director and the producer didn't agree about Michael Peterson and what happened that night. He told me that there was way more to the story than in the doc. And then he also told me that the editor of the documentary had fallen in love with Michael through the footage and that they had started a correspondence that developed into a relationship while he was in prison. And it just immediately became clear that there was this other story there to explore. And then over the years, the story just kept developing and there were more twists. And even with the documentary, even with everything else out there, it just felt like there was always just more to the story than what most people knew."

    TOPICS: The Staircase (2022), HBO Max, The Staircase (2004), Antonio Campos, Colin Firth, Maggie Cohn, Rosemarie DeWitt, Toni Collette