If it feels like every week this spring has seen the release of at least one limited series that bears a strong resemblance to a documentary, feature, or podcast you enjoyed, you’re not mistaken.
And if you’re a little tired of those shows, in which too often nothing is added but Emmy-starved actors playing dress-up, you’re not alone.
Rise above the true crime trend.
However, “telling the same story” and “being actually based on source material” are very different things – and while I’ve loved some of these true crime/true fraud docs and podcasts, none of them they are not. The staircase.
Broadcast in 2005 on the Sundance Channel in the United States, the series in eight episodes by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade was Serial before there was Serial, The Jinx before there was The Jinx. He didn’t really invent a genre, but he codified a structure of shifting sympathies, whippings, and wild revelations that were followed countless times thereafter. There was a decade in which The staircase was hard to find, then it reappeared on Netflix with five more episodes that lacked the craftsmanship and gravitational pull of the original, but at least made that original widely available.
The documentary, and just not her story of the murder of Kathleen Peterson and the trial of her husband Michael, is at the heart of HBO Max’s eight episodes. The staircase. It’s the meta-examination of how the true crime genre constructs, captures and distorts real truth that elevates creator Antonio Campos’ approach here – often in the vein of his headline-grabbing chilling feature. Christina – from artful and starry reconstruction to something often provocative. I only say “often” because across the five episodes sent to reviewers, the two sides of the story don’t always work with equal effectiveness, and there are times when each side feels like it’s slightly dragging the other.
As a reminder: the Petersons looked like Durham, the perfect blended family from North Carolina. Michael (Colin Firth) was an author and occasional political candidate, tirelessly supported by his Nortel executive wife Kathleen (Toni Collette). Their photogenic brood included sons Todd (Patrick Schwarzenegger) and Clayton (Dane DeHaan) and daughters Margaret (Sophie Turner), Martha (Odessa Young) and Caitlin (Olivia DeJonge).
The veneer of domestic bliss was shattered in 2001 when Michael called 911 claiming to have found his wife’s body at the bottom of a flight of stairs after she allegedly took an accidental fall. Michael was quickly arrested for his murder. Was he a cold-blooded killer or targeted by law enforcement because of critical comments he made in his local newspaper column?
As the details were uncovered, a French film crew (Vincent Vermignon and Frank Feys as variable fictional versions of Jean-Xavier and producer Denis Poncet) came to town and were given full access – perhaps too full. – to many key figures in the case. , especially Michael.
I know it’s probably too late for me to tell you, but the best way to watch HBO Max The staircase is probably from having seen the documentary several years ago. That way you have enough sense of story to appreciate how Campos, premiere writer and director of all the episodes I’ve seen, and co-showrunner Maggie Cohn similarly construct the mystery, all being somewhat surprised when secrets and variations emerge.
There are layers of pleasant dramatic irony that come from being aware of certain information that is being withheld – the complications of Michael’s sexuality, the parentage of each of the children, details of their respective pasts – and seeing How? ‘Or’ What they are held back by family members, various lawyers, the documentary crew and viewers.
The series, which weaves together up to three different timelines at once, simultaneously explores how a case like this could span 16 years and engages in its own narrative elongation, with re-enactments of the tragedy and changes of perspective that push each episode to more than an hour. The episodes feel packed but never padded, and while there’s an exhaustion that comes from the constant exploration of heartbreak, there’s a constant substance beyond the misery porn.
It helps that there are many questions that are more pressing than just, “Did Michael do it?” Although I’ll never stop wondering what The staircase would have looked like original star Harrison Ford, Firth nails Michael’s inscrutable insincerity. Even if you’re sure he’s lying about almost everything, you can spend a lot of time wondering why he’s lying and whether being a compulsive liar means he’s a killer. Although Kathleen is underwritten, Collette inhabits the character enough that she is more than the deceased woman and the instigator of the story.
There’s a lot of underwriting going on with characters the documentary hasn’t quite figured out either. Michael Stuhlbarg, bouncing back from flawed or confusing performances in Your Honor and Dope, is both calculating and incredulous like Michael’s attorney, David Rudolf. I wish there was more effort to flesh out the prosecutors of the case: Cullen Moss has little to play for as Jim Harden and Parker Posey end up with a character defined only by a thick Southern accent she uses to generate some much needed laughs.
The decision to treat the documentary crew more like composites than characters isn’t a problem when they’re actively filming the first four episodes. But when the fifth episode focuses more on their post-production process and them as people, you realize they don’t have personalities or voices.
Watching the documentary, I became less interested in Michael and more interested in the polarized allegiances of his children. This is also the best part of the later chapters of the series; the performances of Turner, Young and DeHaan best show the toll that spotlight could take on an already broken family.
The awareness of the documentary provides enough context to immediately see how Campos visually pays homage to the aesthetic established by Lestrade, and where his flourishes are his own. Working loosely around an excellent recreation of the Peterson house, Campos occasionally employs a verity style and even gritty stock video to make viewers feel like voyeurs at family dinners and strategic get-togethers. But then there are sequences of cinematic artificiality – a reminder, in case you need it, that this was already a documentary once and didn’t need to be again. The second episode has an exceptional sequence between the strategy and re-enactment of the defense team in the Peterson house and a city council fundraiser in the house a year earlier, with the camera bobbingly dancing between the occasionally connected scenes. in a single complex plane.
With three episodes unseen, I’ll be curious how Campos and Cohn handle the documentary, its impact on potential appeals, and the genre moving forward. A lot of that can be achieved through a character played by Juliette Binoche, who certainly hasn’t had enough to do so far to justify the role played by, you know, Juliette Binoche.
I’ll also be curious how the show will deal with the “owl theory,” a guess so bizarre the documentaries didn’t even know what to do with it. It speaks well for the show that even after watching this story for 13 unscripted hours, I still have a lot to see here.
Making a scripted show out of an already awesome piece of art is really hard. I give you Paramount+ The offer as an example of recent failure. Until now, The staircase is a good series about a great documentary, but it has the potential to get really good down the stretch.