Led by an excellent Colin Firth, The Staircase is telly at its best. It’s addictive, intriguing and even when melodramatic, never less than gripping.
Episodes watched: 5 out of 8
You may remember the hit Netflix documentary The Staircase, or at least the continuation of it. The original series premiered on BBC Four in 2004, but the case of Michael Peterson was far from over. The docuseries returned, this time on the mega-streamer, in 2018 with the original episodes as well as new material available for true crime-hungry viewers to binge on.
Now, Peterson’s case is dramatised by HBO in the new miniseries, also rather unimaginatively titled The Staircase. Confusing, eh? It’s got a flashy Hollywood cast consisting of Colin Firth, Toni Collette, Patrick Schwarzenegger and Dane DeHaan and boy, oh boy, it is good.
Collette plays Kathleen Peterson, a successful business executive who lives with her large family in Durham, North Carolina. Her husband, Michael Peterson (Firth), is a novelist and when Kathleen dies after seemingly falling down the stairs, the police begin investigating Michael for the incident. Kathleen’s injuries aren’t consistent with a fall but Michael swears he wasn’t even in the house during the accident. Did Michael bludgeon Kathleen to death or was it a simple, but particularly gruesome accident?
Press were only given 5 out of a total of 8 episodes to view, presumably because the final three episodes weren’t finished yet. The 5 episodes, however, are exemplary and intriguing. The Staircase isn’t perfect; it loses momentum in episode 5 and it seems like a mightily big story to stuff into just 8 hours, but with such a good cast and writer-director Anthony Campos’ steady hand, it’s about as good as it gets.
The series also includes the filmmakers approaching the Petersons and eventually crafting their documentary. The Staircase works as an excellent companion piece to the very addictive documentary series, especially as both have ever so slightly different goals. One examines the American justice system through the prism of this very peculiar case and the other is more concerned with something bigger.
The Staircase, ultimately, is not just about justice but truth itself. The case has remained one with so many inconsistencies that it seems impossible to decide or conclude what really happened on that fateful night and Campos’ series makes the best of that. It plants so many seeds of doubt in your mind, it’s almost dizzying. We see Kathleen leave Michael by the pool and begin her climb up the back stairs, only to slip and fall and then fall again, leading to her death.
We also see another version of the event, in which Kathleen argues with Michael, who violently bashes his wife around until she is inches from death, life draining from her before his eyes. Which is the truth? We’ll never know but the possibilities are as disturbing as they are fascinating.
Firth is simply magnetic as Michael, a flawed, infuriating man desperate to either get away with murder or prove his innocence. The entire cast provides good support, especially Michael Stuhlbarg as Peterson’s defence attorney, but this is Firth’s show. Firth as Peterson is like we’ve never seen Firth before, his stern, proper Britishness is nowhere to be seen. Instead, we see a man, devastated, frazzled and broken. His panic might be grief or guilt, but Firth constantly makes us question his motives.
The series also excels on the technical side. Despite losing steam after the focus moves away from the active investigation and trial, The Staircase is edited remarkably well. While the episodes are a little on the long side (just over an hour each), they’re paced well and the balance between Peterson’s trial and the fictionalised version of the original filmmakers capturing more private, intimate footage for the documentary is good.
What’s less good is how the show handles Peterson’s bisexuality. Gay porn is found on Peterson’s computer and he admits to having sex with men whilst with Kathleen – all taken from real life, of course. Yet, it all leaves a bad taste in the mouth, as if bisexuality means that you’re bound to cheat on your spouse in order to fulfill some need or urge.
Overall, The Staircase is a compelling drama that centres on truth and the many versions of it. It examines the American dream, justice system and the family dynamics during such a tumultuous time. The Golden Age of television certainly isn’t over.