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Recommended: The Staircase (Drama Series) on HBO Max

Finally, a true-crime docudrama that gets it right.
  • Colin Firth in The Staircase. (Photo: HBO Max)
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    The Staircase (Drama Series) | HBO Max
    Eight-Episode Limited Series (Crime Drama) | TV-MA

    What's The Staircase (Drama Series) About?

    Based on the 2004 docuseries of the same name, The Staircase dives into the 2001 death of Kathleen Peterson, who either accidentally fell to her death down a flight of stairs or was murdered by her husband, Michael Peterson. The subsequent investigation uncovers a number of buried secrets within the Peterson family, who struggle to maintain a united front as both the prosecution and defense scramble to present their versions of just what happened to Kathleen.

    Who's involved?

    • Colin Firth is Michael Peterson, a novelist and failed politician.
    • Toni Collette is Michael's wife, Kathleen Peterson. She is shown in extensive flashbacks.
    • Michael Stuhlbarg is David Rudolf, Michael Peterson's attorney, who confidently goes about the business of establishing an alternate scenario for Kathleen's death.
    • Dane DeHaan is Clayton Peterson, Michael's eldest son and the black sheep of the family, whose many screw-ups and indiscretions are frequently met with sideways glances.
    • Patrick Schwarzenegger is Todd Peterson, Michael's second-oldest son, upon whom responsibility to be "the steady one" falls.
    • Sophie Turner is Margaret Ratliff, the oldest of Michael Peterson's two daughters. She was adopted after their parents — close friends of Michael and his first wife — died when the girls were very young.
    • Odessa Young is Martha Ratliff, the younger of the two adopted Ratliff girls, who struggles more outwardly with the pressures of standing by her dad during the trial.
    • Olivia DeJonge is Caitlin Atwater, Kathleen's daughter from her previous marriage.
    • Rosemarie DeWitt is Candace Hunt Zamperini, Kathleen's sister. She becomes a vocal believer that Michael murdered Kathleen.
    • Parker Posey is Freda Black, the Assistant District Attorney in Durham who tries the Peterson case in court.
    • Juliette Binoche is Sophie Brunet, a character whose identity is being kept quiet by HBO.

    Why (and to whom) do we recommend it?

    After the craze of high-profile true-crime documentaries of the last decade, it makes sense that we're now seeing a star-studded dramatic adaptations all over TV. Whether or not you've seen the original Staircase docuseries and its many eyebrow-raising revelations, HBO Max's The Staircase will scratch any number of itches like a particularly satisfying owl's talon.

    The first and perhaps best reason to watch this adaptation is Colin Firth, who gives a tremendous performance as Peterson. Anyone familiar with the story will immediately clock Firth's portrayal as uncanny, both in resemblance and in the way he makes Peterson seem both obviously guilty and humanly (yet benignly) flawed, often within the same scene.

    Writer/producers Antonio Campos and Maggie Cohn clearly undertand what was so compelling about the docuseries — the steady and jaw-dropping procession of revelations about Peterson and his family, each one casting Kathleen's murder in a new light. This new Staircase is just as much a family drama as a courtroom drama, with the Peterson/Ratliff/Atwater clan becoming increasingly fractured as it goes along. True crime is a genre that feasts on the idea that what seems like the idyllic American family from the outside can turn out to be toxic and violent behind closed doors, and although The Staircase plays with that expectation, the family it depicts is more complicated than monstrous. Everything we learn triggers the part of our brain that's been trained to see anything aberrant as proof of villainy, but the show and its excellent performances force us to see everyone as nuanced individuals.

    About those performances: Firth is exceptional, but he's not alone, as we get highlights from just about everybody, including Collette's quietly frustrated Kathleen, DeHaan's tragic failson, and Turner and Young as the Ratliff girls, whose loyalties to the man who raised them end up tested most of all when the truth of their parents' fate comes to light.

    Campos and Cohn understand that a true crime obsession like the Peterson case rests upon its most outlandish twists and turns, and they have fun with that. The infamous "blowpoke" (a fireplace implement with a silly name that was thought to be the murder weapon) is the subject of several campily overdramatic revelations. Meanwhile, Parker Posey shows up to portray Freda Black, a prosecutor whose overplayed horror at the details of Michael Peterson's personal life may well have been a one-woman show at some woebegone improv theater somewhere, and that was in the documentary.

    Yes, there are ties in the point of its eight-episode run where The Staircase can feel a bit padded, but that's a symptom of a larger problem. Fans of the original will be satisfied watching the true story dramatized with such talented and committed performances, while newcomers will marvel at what is one of the more improbably twisty murder cases in the true crime canon. Landing somewhere in the captivating middle between dryly respectful and crassly campy, The Staircase gets it done.

    Pairs well with

    • The Staircase, the original 8-part documentary — which was later supplemented with five additional episodes — is the ultimate companion piece to this limited series. It streams on Netflix.
    • The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, streaming on Hulu, is probably the greatest example of a star-studded true-crime extravaganza we've ever had on TV.
    • Trial & Error, the NBC comedy series that heavily satirized The Staircase in its first season. (It's available for purchase on Prime Video, YouTube, and elsewhere.)

  • The Staircase (Drama Series)
    Premieres three episodes on HBO Max on May 5, 2022. New episodes Thursdays through June 9th.
    Created by: Antonio Campos and Maggie Cohn.
    Starring: Colin Firth, Toni Collette, Michael Stuhlbarg, Sophie Turner, Odessa Young, Dane DeHaan, Patrick Schwarzenegger, Juliette Binoche, Parker Posey, and Olivia DeJonge.
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    TOPICS: The Staircase (2022), HBO Max, Antonio Campos, Colin Firth, Dane DeHaan, Juliette Binoche, Maggie Cohn, Michael Stuhlbarg, Odessa Young, Olivia DeJonge, Parker Posey, Patrick Schwarzenegger, Sophie Turner, Toni Collette