The truth is often stranger than fiction. Sometimes it’s not, yet it still makes for compelling drama. Such is the case with The Staircase, a new eight-part series premiering HBO Max this May. I didn’t realize it was based on a true story when I started watching, but somewhere in the middle of the third episode, I began to suspect it was. There was just too much that seemed ordinary and relatable; it just had to be a true story. But that’s what makes The Staircase so fascinating to watch—it feels like you are a voyeur, looking through the neighbor’s window and seeing all their dirty laundry being hung out to dry. No need for a Hollywood writer to punch this one up with fantastical elements; real life can handle bizarre all on its own very nicely, thank you.
The Staircase stars Colin Firth as Michael Peterson, a novelist and wannabe politician in Durham, North Carolina, who is arrested after his wife, Kathleen (Toni Collette), is found dead at the bottom of a staircase in their upscale home. Michael insists he did not kill Kathleen, that she must have fallen, and declares that the police and district attorney are politically motivated against him. Michael defends himself with the help of a very expensive (and very good) criminal lawyer, David Rudolf (Michael Stuhlbarg), and his brother Bill (Tim Guinee). As for Michael’s blended family of five children, loyalties become divided, as Kathleen’s daughter from her first marriage, Caitlin (Olivia DeJonge), believes that Michael actually did it and works with the prosecution, while the rest of the kids, Margaret (Sophie Turner), Clayton (Dane DeHaan), Martha (Odessa Young), and Todd (Patrick Schwarzenegger), all side with their dad and stand by him.
Further adding to the tension and the drama is the fact that a French documentary director (Vincent Vermignon) and his producer (Frank Feys) have decided Michael’s plight would be the perfect subject for a documentary that examines the American judicial system, so they come to North Carolina, cameras in tow, to capture every waking moment of Michael’s ordeal.
There is no denying the true crime allure of this series, with its inherent catnip for the millions of fans who are obsessed with sensational cases like this, as the elements are tailor-made for sensationalism: a rich, white, egotistical man is charged with killing his famous, socialite wife in their sprawling mansion in the suburbs. Secrets are uncovered about his double life and his mysterious past—it is quite literally made for television. But what makes this series, created by Antonio Campos, who also directed and wrote most of the episodes, so much different—and better–than your average, run-of-the-mill true crime dramatization is the tension that Campos can continue building throughout the series.
Just as one chapter in the story seemingly closes, another one finds a way to open, taking the story down a different, unforeseen path. And that is, ultimately, the one thing that makes The Staircase so addictive: it’s completely unpredictable. I was only given five of the eight episodes to screen, and I have no idea how this series will end. It’s taking every bit of my fortitude not to Google this case to find out what happened (the murder took place in 2001) because I want to stay on the journey Campos is taking me on.
It also helps that Campos has assembled a most excellent ensemble that carries the audience through this story, centered on an anchoring and utterly compelling performance from Colin Firth. Besides the fact that Firth seems to be literally transforming into Tom Wilkinson as he gets older (this is a compliment), he is also more than proving that his Oscar for The King’s Speech was more than deserved. His performance as Michael is both endearing and skin-crawling. You really don’t know whether to love him or despise him. It is a true gift to be able to play a character this hard to read.
Firth’s characterization reminded me a bit of Hugh Grant’s character in another HBO series about murder, The Undoing, as Grant’s character was also an arrogant, off-putting privileged white male who made it so easy to believe in his guilt, even though that may not have been the reality. Firth is masterfully enigmatic as Michael, never revealing too much but showing us just enough of his temper and selfishness to make us distrust him. But then we see his family adore him (for the most part), and it endears us to him. Is he a killer, or just an arrogant ass? Does he use his family as a prop, or does he genuinely love them? Nothing is clear, and Firth never gives anything away but still delivers a performance that grabs hold of our imagination, leaving every avenue open to possibility. It would be so easy to accept that he did it. But then again, that would be too easy.
While the acting is exceptional all the way around, the biggest gift of The Staircase is the brilliant way Campos structures the narrative with flashbacks that not only provide pieces of the puzzle but drop hints and clues along the way to even more questions that make us long for answers. Multiple timelines are navigated, along with numerous characters. Still, Campos and his team do a great job keeping them all straight and filling in the pieces of the puzzle ever so carefully, ending each episode with a perfectly-placed cliffhanger. The pacing is superb, even with the unavoidably bland courtroom sequences, which, because they are based on real-life, lack the fireworks we are used to from made-in-Hollywood legal dramas.
Stylistically, Campos infuses the first two episodes with a flair, using bold camera angles and needle drops to ramp up the drama, but it settles down to standard, straightforward storytelling in later episodes, relying on acting and screenplay to keep us engaged. Be warned though, it is a very adult series, with graphic violence and pornographic images used to tell the story, sometimes unnecessarily so, designed to illustrate the brutality of Kathleen’s death and to fill in some color to Michael’s character.
My only complaint is we get far too little of Collette, whom we see in flashbacks, but a little Toni Collette goes a long way, and she makes the most of every scene, no surprises there. Stuhlbarg gives his typical solid performance, which you can set your clock to. The always-delightful Parker Posey finds ways to bring a little camp and scenery-chewing into her dramatic role as an assistant district attorney. Oscar-winner Juliette Binoche is also excellent, in a part I am not allowed to divulge, adding even more panache to this exceptional cast. All the children are good, but Dane DeHaan stands out, playing the black sheep of the family who has the most complicated relationship with his father.
Complicated is the keyword in describing The Staircase, as nothing is what it seems, and what you think you know is far from the truth. While it may not break any new ground in terms of style or content, it is an absolutely engaging series that will hold your interest and showcases a central performance by Colin Firth that reminds us he is still one of the most capable actors working today.