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Colin Firth as Michael Petersen being interviewed by a camera crew Photo: HBO Max

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HBO’s The Staircase shows the limits of the True-Crime Industrial Complex

What can Colin Firth and Toni Collette teach us in another version of Kathleen Peterson’s murder investigation?

On paper, The Staircase is wholly unnecessary. The 2001 death of North Carolina business executive Kathleen Peterson and subsequent trial of her husband Michael has been covered in obsessive detail, both in the Peabody Award-winning docuseries that gives The Staircase its name and a flurry of copycat documentaries (shoutout to the ID channel). So what’s the point of wrapping those same events in a new package and selling them — again?

The typical line for true-crime projects trying to sidestep accusations of exploitation is that it’s about “honoring the victims,” or at least exploring their psychology. Series creator Antonio Campos’ 2016 film Christine accomplished this admirably, dramatizing the troubled emotions and thwarted ambitions that led to Florida news anchor Christine Chubbuck’s on-air death in 1974. The same can’t really be said for the five episodes of The Staircase made available for review: Sure, you’ve got Toni Collette as Kathleen, building on her fearless reputation with dinner-table scenes that can’t help but evoke her famous “I am your mother!” monologue from Hereditary. But in terms of illuminating what made either Peterson tick, Campos’ version of The Staircase is no more forthcoming than Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s original.

The fictionalized Staircase is more about the meta-narrative surrounding the case than the case itself (or, by extension, the people involved). Campos’ version of the story has secured a fantastic, high-profile cast that also features Colin Firth as Michael Peterson, as well as Juliette Binoche, Michael Stuhlbarg, Rosemarie DeWitt, Sophie Turner, and Parker Posey in supporting roles. But early on in this eight-episode series, the casting gives The Staircase the air of a prestige reenactment. Combined with the extensive use of a bloodied, battered dummy, as well as disturbing, graphic re-creations that see Collette dying in extreme distress again and again, it sets a ghoulish tone that preempts any paeans to post-mortem dignity.

The Petersen family sitting at the table, with Michael shot from behind and Kathleen smiling at the kids between them Photo: HBO Max
The Petersen family sitting at the table, with Kathleen shot from behind and Michael smiling at the kids between them Photo: HBO Max

But for 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. 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.

Given that the documentary version of The Staircase grapples with questions of prejudice and the impossibility of objective truth, this approach is both wholly appropriate and rather clever. Not all the documentary references are so abstract, however: Campos faithfully re-creates memorable imagery from the documentary, namely a haunting shot of a tape recorder playing audio of a voice crying for help. In both versions, it’s part of a sequence depicting tests done by Peterson’s defense to prove that there was no way he could have heard his wife’s dying screams from his position next to the family’s pool. But in de Lestrade’s film, it’s more visceral, and therefore more haunting — a reminder of Kathleen’s suffering in what’s otherwise a very clinical documentary. Campos’ rendition is full of both humanizing texture and macabre shock value, which makes the faithfulness with which he recreates this moment feel more like a winking Easter egg than anything.

Colin Firth arguing with Michael Stuhlbarg in a still from The Staircase Photo: HBO Max

The attention to detail extends to the set design: When the camera turns its gaze to a pile of VHS tapes on Peterson’s desk (Amadeus, Oklahoma!, The Third Man, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, for those interested), there’s an implicit promise that this is a detail taken straight from life. The Staircase does do a good job of establishing the series’ banal, moneyed late-’90s/early-’00s suburban milieu, although it’s less meticulous when it comes to establishing how Peterson’s wealth and status factored in to his prosecution for murder. According to the first half of The Staircase, the state of North Carolina simply learned that Peterson was married to a woman but had dalliances with men on the side, and decided to hang him for it.

For her part, Posey — who plays prosecutor Freda Black — is acting in the style of a Ryan Murphy true-crime drama, doing her version of Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark with a Southern accent and a prurient, homophobic fixation on Michael Peterson’s bisexuality. Now, this may be factually correct. But the performance is exaggerated in a way that doesn’t jive with the realistic portrayals of more sympathetic players like the Petersons’ adopted daughters, Margaret (Turner) and Martha (Odessa Young). Depending on who you talk to, however, maybe the prosecutors in this case were cartoon villains. Kathleen Peterson’s death was mysterious from the jump, and the enigma only deepens as details are parceled out in each subsequent episode.

Campos makes a lot of interesting decisions in The Staircase, from its larger meta-framework to the decision to omit a dramatic courtroom moment from the narrative entirely. Even the series’ less tasteful moments can be seen as bold direction, a refusal to look away from the distressing reality of death. There may indeed be no real “truth” about what happened the night Kathleen Peterson died, only a mountain of circumstantial evidence and curious onlookers bringing their own agendas to the case. The challenge for this series is to remain faithful to the emotional truth of the Staircase saga, and not get lost in the gruesome details.

The first three episodes of The Staircase debut on May 5 on HBO Max. New episodes are released every Thursday.

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