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If you’ve been feeling like every week this spring has seen the release of at least one limited series that strongly resembles a documentary, news feature or podcast you once enjoyed, you’re not wrong.
And if you’re getting a little fatigued with these shows, in which too frequently nothing is added other than Emmy-hungry actors playing dress-up, you’re not alone.
Airdate: Thursday, May 5 (HBO Max)
Cast: Colin Firth, Toni Collette, Michael Stuhlbarg, Juliette Binoche, Dane DeHaan, Olivia DeJonge, Rosemarie DeWitt, Tim Guinee, Patrick Schwarzenegger, Sophie Turner, Vincent Vermignon, Odessa Young and Parker Posey
Creator: Antonio Campos
However, “telling the same story” and “actually being based on source material” are very different things — and however adored some of those true crime/true fraud docs and podcasts might have been, none of them are The Staircase.
Released in 2005 on Sundance Channel in the U.S., Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s eight-part series was Serial before there was Serial, The Jinx before there was The Jinx. It didn’t really invent a genre, but it codified a structure of shifting sympathies, whiplash twists and wild evidentiary reveals that have been followed countless times subsequently. There was a decade during which The Staircase was difficult to find, and then it reappeared on Netflix along with five additional episodes that lacked the craftsmanship and gravitational pull of the original, but at least made that original widely available.
The documentary, and just not its story of the murder of Kathleen Peterson and trial of her husband Michael, is central to HBO Max’s eight-episode The Staircase. It’s the meta examination of the way the true crime genre constructs, captures and distorts the actual truth that elevates creator Antonio Campos’ approach here — often in the vein of his chilling ripped-from-headlines feature Christine — from artful, star-studded reenactment, to something frequently provocative. I only say “frequently,” because through the five episodes sent to critics, 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 down the other.
As a refresher: The Petersons looked like Durham, North Carolina’s perfect blended family. Michael (Colin Firth) was an author and occasional political candidate, endlessly supported by wife Kathleen (Toni Collette), an executive at Nortel. Their photogenic brood featured 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 staircase after she allegedly took an accidental tumble. Michael was quickly arrested for her murder. Was he a cold-blooded killer or targeted by law enforcement because of critical comments he made in his local newspaper column?
As details were being unearthed, a French film crew (Vincent Vermignon and Frank Feys as variably fictionalized versions of Jean-Xavier and producer Denis Poncet) arrived in town and were given full — perhaps too-full — access to many of the case’s key figures, especially Michael.
I know it’s probably too late for me to tell you this, but the best way to watch HBO Max’s The Staircase is probably to have seen the documentary several years ago. That way you have enough of a sense of the story to appreciate how Campos, writer of the premiere and director of all of the episodes I’ve seen, and co-showrunner Maggie Cohn are building the mystery similarly, while still being somewhat surprised when secrets and variations emerge.
There are layers of pleasant dramatic irony that come from being aware of certain pieces of information that are held back — complications of Michael’s sexuality, the parentage of each of the kids, details from their respective pasts — and seeing how they’re being held back from members of the family, various attorneys, the documentary crew and viewers.
The series, which is interweaving as many as three different timelines at once, simultaneously explores how a case like this could stretch over 16 years and engages in narrative elongation of its own, with reenactments of the tragedy and shifts in perspective that push each episode to over an hour. Episodes feel packed but never padded, and while there’s an exhaustion that comes from the steady crawl of grief, there’s consistent substance beyond the misery porn.
It helps that there are many questions that are more pressing than simply, “Did Michael do it?” Although I’m never going to stop wondering what The Staircase would have looked like with original star Harrison Ford, Firth nails Michael’s inscrutable insincerity. Even if you’re certain he’s lying about nearly everything, you can spend a long time wondering why he’s lying and if being a compulsive liar means he’s a killer. Though Kathleen is underwritten, Collette inhabits the character enough that she’s more than just the dead wife and instigator of the story.
There’s a lot of underwriting going on with characters that the documentary didn’t quite understand either. Michael Stuhlbarg, bouncing back after miscast or confusing performances in Your Honor and Dopesick, is equal parts calculating and incredulous as Michael’s lawyer David Rudolf. I wish there was more effort to flesh out the case’s prosecutors: Cullen Moss has little to play as Jim Harden and Parker Posey is left with a character defined only by a thick Southern accent that she uses to generate some very necessary laughs.
The decision to treat the documentary crew more as composites than characters isn’t a problem when they’re actively filming in the first four episodes. But when the fifth episode focuses more heavily on their post-production process and them as people, you realize they have neither personalities nor voices.
In watching the documentary, I actually became less interested in Michael and more interested in the polarized allegiances of his kids. That’s also the best part of the later chapters of the series; the performances by Turner, Young and DeHaan best exhibit the toll this spotlight could put on an already splintered family.
Awareness of the documentary provides enough context to immediately see how Campos is visually paying tribute to the aesthetic established by Lestrade, and where his flourishes are his own. Working freely around an excellent recreation of the Peterson home, Campos sometimes uses a vérité style and even grainy video stock to make viewers feel like voyeurs at family dinners and strategy meetings. But then there are sequences of cinematic artificiality — a reminder, in case you needed one, that this was already a documentary once and didn’t need to be again. The second episode has an exceptional intercutting sequence between the defense team’s strategizing and reenacting in the Peterson house and a city council fundraiser in the house a year earlier, the camera dancing balletically between the scenes sometimes connected within a single complexly patched-together shot.
With three episodes left unseen, I’m going to be curious about how Campos and Cohn handle the documentary, its impact on the eventual appeals and on the genre going forward. A lot of that may be realized through a character played by Juliette Binoche, who, thus far, definitely hasn’t been given enough to do to justify the part being played by, you know, Juliette Binoche.
I’ll also be curious how the series is going to handle the “Owl Theory,” a supposition so bizarre the documentaries didn’t even know what to do with it. It speaks well for the show that even after having watched this story for 13 unscripted hours, I still have plenty left I want to see here.
Doing a scripted show about an already great piece of art is really tough. I give you Paramount+’s The Offer as a recent failed example. So far, The Staircase is a good series about a great documentary, but it has the potential to become very good in the home stretch.
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