The Staircase is a true-crime thriller that does not tell the true story behind the crime at the center of its plot. That’s because the crime in question remains shrouded in mystery. The case’s details continue to plague and nag at the minds of true-crime fanatics everywhere, and forum sites like Reddit are filled with pages dedicated to discussing what might have happened on the fateful 2001 night in which Kathleen Peterson was found dead at the bottom of a staircase in her North Carolina home.
Without an agreed-upon version of what happened on the night Kathleen either tragically died or was brutally killed, The Staircase attempts to tell the twisty true story of the criminal investigation that her death inspired. The show, which is based on Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s 2004 documentary series of the same name, meticulously dramatizes the scandalous trial that played out after Kathleen’s death, as well as the ways in which it fractured the relationships between her loved ones.
At the center of its story is Michael Peterson (Colin Firth), Kathleen’s husband, who became a target of great media scrutiny after he was named the prime suspect in his wife’s possible murder. The Staircase is, much like the documentary series that inspired it and the legions of true-crime fans who are obsessed with the case, primarily interested in getting into the mind of Michael. The pursuit is an admirable one, but The Staircase doesn’t always pull it off with flying colors.
Exploitative at its worst
HBO Max, 2022
Created and written by Antonio Campos and Maggie Cohn, The Staircase keeps its focus on Firth’s Michael as much as possible. That approach allows the series to put him under intense amounts of scrutiny at all times, and there are moments when The Staircase‘s various parts come together to form a unique portrait of a possible sociopath. However, The Staircase’s ceaseless interest in Michael also requires that the audience find him as compelling of a figure as its creators. That’s a big assumption to make, considering his oversized ego and ability to be needlessly cruel.
By focusing as intensely as it does on Michael, The Staircase also ends up shortchanging many of its other characters. That’s especially true when it comes to Collette’s Kathleen. While she is given a number of standalone scenes set prior to her death, The Staircase is never as invested in Kathleen as it is in the man who might have murdered her. By prioritizing Michael’s characterization over Kathleen’s, the series shines a bigger spotlight on the suspected perpetrator of a crime than it does its possible victim.
That’s a decision that has marred many past true-crime dramas for similar reasons, but The Staircase takes its uneven treatment of Kathleen one step too far when it literally visualizes two of the ways that she could have died. In the first scene, Kathleen simply trips and falls down her staircase, hitting her head hard enough on the way down that it results in her painfully bleeding out within minutes. In the second scene, Michael pushes Kathleen down the stairs and proceeds to assault her until she’s no longer breathing.
The scenes are intentionally horrifying and feel like they could have been ripped straight out of a prestige horror film, but there is no justifiable reason for them to be included in the show. Kathleen Peterson was a real person, and The Staircase‘s dramatizations of her death fail to ring with the level of sensitivity that’s necessary for a true-crime adaptation. The two scenes — as well as the intense focus the show’s premiere episode pays to her dead body — rob Kathleen of her humanity, turning her into a prop for The Staircase to use in its mystery.
Addictively entertaining at its best
HBO Max, 2022
Fortunately, many of The Staircase’s biggest shortcomings are made up for by the performances given by its star-studded cast. Colin Firth, to his credit, is exceptional as Michael, playing the character with a straight-faced understated quality that makes him captivating to watch even in the moments when it feels like the show would benefit from shifting its focus away from him. Opposite him, Toni Collette turns in another reliably great performance as Kathleen — even if she is underserved by the show itself.
Juliette Binoche also shines in a role that is, understandably, kept secret throughout much of The Staircase’s first few episodes. Binoche has one of the most assertive screen presences of any actor in the past 30 years, and she brings depth and dimension to a character that could have very easily come across as one-note in lesser hands. As the director of most of The Staircase’s episodes, Campos wisely spends several scenes just slowly zooming in on Binoche’s face as she spirals deeper and deeper into her thoughts, and they stand as some of the best moments of the show’s first five installments.
Michael Stuhlbarg similarly impresses as the dry and cutthroat lawyer that Michael hires to represent him during his trial. Meanwhile, Olivia DeJonge and Odessa Young turn in vulnerable, well-calibrated performances as two members of the Peterson clan who begin to question and doubt Michael’s claims about Kathleen’s death. Together, the show’s cast makes watching The Staircase a consistently entertaining and engrossing experience even when it feels the most scattered and unbalanced.
An imperfect portrait of a 21st-century scandal
HBO Max, 2022
Behind the camera, Campos and Cohn add an interesting layer to The Staircase’s story that could not be addressed in Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s original documentary series, and that’s the actual making of the production. Played by Vincent Vermignon, Lestrade is a character in the series, as are several of his crew members. Its focus on the creation of the documentary ultimately injects The Staircase with a shot of compelling metacommentary.
Unfortunately, the creation of the documentary ends up being underserved in much the same way many of The Staircase’s storylines are. The series’ intense focus on diving into the mind of Michael Peterson consumes many of its other narrative detours and subplots — to the point where even the creation of Lestrade’s documentary seems to boil down in the show to whether or not the filmmaker and his crew members believe Michael is innocent.
As a result, The Staircase frequently fails to display the level of empathy for Kathleen Peterson that its story desperately needs, which leaves it feeling lopsided in a way that may not sit well with certain viewers.
The Staircase premieres with its first three episodes on Thursday, May 5 on HBO Max. Digital Trends was provided with access to the series’ first five installments.