Colin Firth in The staircase. (Picture: HBO Max)
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The Staircase (drama series)
| HBO Max
Eight-episode limited series (crime drama) | TV-MA
What is The Staircase (drama series) On?
Based on the 2004 docuseries of the same name, The staircase dives into the 2001 death of Kathleen Peterson, who either died accidentally on a flight of stairs or was murdered by her husband, Michael Peterson. The ensuing investigation reveals a number of secrets buried within the Peterson family, who struggle to maintain a united front as the prosecution and defense scramble to present their versions of what happened to Kathleen.
Who is involved?
- Colin Firth is Michael Peterson, failed novelist and politician.
- Toni Collette is Michael’s wife, Kathleen Peterson. She is shown in many flashbacks.
- Michael Stuhlbarg is David Rudolf, Michael Peterson’s lawyer, who confidently deals with establishing an alternate scenario for Kathleen’s death.
- Dane DeHaan is Clayton Peterson, Michael’s eldest son and the black sheep of the family, whose many mistakes and indiscretions frequently elicit sidelong glances.
- Patrick Schwarzenegger is Todd Peterson, the second oldest son of Michael, who bears the responsibility of being “the stable”.
- Sophie Turner is Margaret Ratliff, the eldest of Michael Peterson’s two daughters. She was adopted after their parents – close friends of Michael and his first wife – died when the girls were very young.
- Odessa Young stars as Martha Ratliff, the younger of the two adopted Ratliff daughters, who struggles more outwardly with the pressure of standing by her father during the trial.
- Olivia DeJonge is Caitlin Atwater, Kathleen’s daughter from her previous marriage.
- Rosemarie DeWitt is Candace Hunt Zamperini, Kathleen’s sister. She becomes convinced that Michael murdered Kathleen.
- Parker Posey is Freda Black, the assistant district attorney of Durham trying Peterson’s case in court.
- Juliette Binoche is Sophie Brunet, a character whose identity is kept secret by HBO.
Why (and to whom) do we recommend it?
After the high-profile true-crime documentary craze of the past decade, it only makes sense that we’re now seeing star-studded drama adaptations all over TV. Whether or not you’ve seen the original Stairs docuseries and its many mind-blowing revelations, HBO Max’s The staircase will scratch a number of itch like a particularly satisfying owl talon.
The first and perhaps the best reason to watch this adaptation is Colin Firth, who gives a terrific performance as Peterson. Anyone familiar with the story will immediately see Firth’s portrayal as odd, both in his likeness and in the way he makes Peterson look both obviously guilty and humanly (but benignly) flawed, often in the same scene.
Writers/producers Antonio Campos and Maggie Cohn clearly understood what was so compelling about the docuseries – the steady, jaw-dropping procession of revelations about Peterson and his family, each casting Kathleen’s murder in a new light. This new Stairs is as much a family drama as it is a court drama, with the Peterson/Ratliff/Atwater clan becoming more and more fractured as it goes. True crime is a genre that revels in the idea that what looks like the idyllic American family on the outside can turn out to be toxic and violent behind closed doors, and although The staircase plays with this expectation, the family he portrays is more complicated than monstrous. Everything we learn triggers the part of our brains that’s been trained to see anything outlandish as evidence of badness, but the show and its excellent performances force us to see everyone as nuanced individuals.
About those performances: Firth is outstanding, but he’s not alone, as we get highlights from just about everyone, including Collette’s quietly frustrated Kathleen, DeHaan’s tragic failure, and Turner and Young in as the Ratliff daughters, whose loyalty to the man who raised them ends up being tested especially when the truth about their parents’ fates is revealed.
Campos and Cohn understand that a true obsession with crime like the Peterson case relies on its wildest twists, and they have fun with it. The infamous “blowpoke” (a fireplace tool with a silly name that was believed to be the murder weapon) is the subject of several overly dramatic revelations. Meanwhile, Parker Posey steps up to play Freda Black, a prosecutor whose exaggerated horror at the details of Michael Peterson’s personal life may well have been a one-man show in some deplorable improv theater somewhere, and it’s was in the documentary.
Yes, there are ties to the point of his eight-episode series where The staircase can feel a bit padded, but that’s a symptom of a larger issue. Fans of the original will be pleased to watch the true story dramatized with such talented and engaged performances, while newcomers will marvel at what is one of the most unlikely murder cases in true crime canon. . Landing somewhere in the captivating middle between dryly respectful and grossly campy, The staircase the fact.
Goes well with
- The staircase, the original 8-part documentary – which was later expanded with five additional episodes – is the ultimate companion to this limited series. It is streaming on Netflix.
- The People vs. OJ Simpson: American Crime Storystreaming on Hulu, is probably the greatest example of a star-studded true-crime extravaganza we’ve ever had on television.
- trial and errorthe NBC comedy series that heavily satirized The staircase in its first season. (It’s available for purchase on Prime Video, YouTube and elsewhere.)