Recommended: The Staircase (Drama Series) on HBO Max
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.
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
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