The Staircase Is the Natural Next Step in Our True-Crime Watching Spree

True crime has come a long way from the cheap, lurid days of America’s Most Wanted. The new HBO Max series The Staircase, starring Colin Firth and Toni Collette, has the posh cast and opulent production values that showcase the genre's evolution.

Colin Firth stars as Michael Peterson in The Staircase on HBO Max. (HBO Max)

There’s a boom in true-crime narratives across all media — TV series, movies, podcasts, and books. It seems impossible that it can keep growing, but it does. The Staircase is a good example of the proliferation, because it’s an adaptation of a Peabody Award–winning French docuseries of the same name that was sensationally popular as a two-hour Primetime television event in 2004, and then again as an expanded thirteen-episode Netflix series in 2012–13, with additional follow-up episodes aired on Netflix in 2018. The story never runs out of steam, it seems — it just keeps coming back as the genre gains more mainstream popularity.

This new HBO Max adaptation is a dramatic narrative based on the docuseries. It’s about the mysterious death of a wealthy North Carolina businesswoman, Kathleen Peterson, who was found at the bottom of an excessively bloody staircase with more head lacerations and bodily cuts and bruises than were easy to account for if she merely tripped and fell down the stairs. Her husband, Michael Peterson, a novelist, was indicted for her murder, but tormenting questions undermine his eventual conviction.

The making of the French documentary is one of the plot strands in this thirteen-episode drama, which features an amazing rollout of incriminating facts about the secret life and many lies of Michael Peterson. As anyone familiar with the true-crime genre is aware, it’s absolutely necessary that there be an almost unbelievable number of secrets revealed and/or murders and other crimes committed, to the point that your mind reels contemplating them. It also helps if there’s corruption or incompetence or both at every level of the police investigation and the workings of the so-called justice system, as there is here. (There’s generally no problem finding that.)

In short, no one wants a thin true-crime narrative with one easily solved murder that can’t sustain the plunge into nightmarish extremes of the human experience. Finding the right, insanely convoluted crime or the most astonishingly terrible murderer is half the battle. Author Ann Rule is generally considered the queen of these tales in book form, and how did she get her start? By stumbling into the most head-spinning real-life story herself. She volunteered to work at a suicide hotline in the early 1970s, and a fellow volunteer was a nice, clean-cut young student named Ted Bundy, whom she befriended and liked so much that she wished her daughter would marry him. The Stranger Beside Me, a landmark in American true-crime fiction, was the result.

But you can’t count on the dubious luck of knowing Ted Bundy personally and then discovering he was as close to being an incomprehensible monster as any serial killer who ever lived. There must be quite a battle going on behind the scenes among true-crime authors who are fighting to get the book deal covering the latest shocking murder story.

Obviously, I’ve taken an interest in true-crime tales myself, but it was back in the 1990s. I had to give it up after a few years. If you read or watch too many of these things, it can have a cumulative effect on your mental health. You start suffering from stranger-beside-me paranoia, feeling deeply uneasy about fellow human beings and the entire structure of society — or, at least, uneasier than you would’ve felt otherwise.

But the genre still has its fascination, of course, and these days, it’s hard to resist dipping a toe back into the raging river of true-crime media. The first three episodes of The Staircase on HBO Max aren’t as eye-popping so far as, say, The Thing About Pam, an NBC series based on Dateline NBC reports and a podcast with the same title. But judging from early reviews, it probably beats Candy, a new docudrama series premiering on Hulu, though Candy may be bettered by its rival docudrama series, Love and Death, an HBO Max version of the same shocking true-crime account of a suburban axe murder that comes out later this year. Both are based on the book Evidence of Love: A True Story of Passion and Death in the Suburbs by John Bloom and Jim Atkinson, as well as the authors’ Texas Monthly series of articles titled “Love and Death in Silicon Prairie.”

Just to assure you that there is no dearth of current true-crime content, you could always go with Under the Banner of Heaven, the docudrama on FX/Hulu based on the nonfiction best seller by Jon Krakauer, or The Girl From Plainville on Hulu, based on Jesse Barron’s 2017 Esquire article published under the same title, which was also covered in the 2019 HBO documentary I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth v. Michelle Carter.

Toni Collette plays Kathleen Peterson in The Staircase. (HBO Max)

The Staircase seems to be following a trend within the genre toward big-name casts, thoughtfully scripted docudrama formats, and opulent production values, all lavished on lurid stories that might once have been ground out in cheap America’s Most Wanted or Cold Case Files reality-TV fashion. It doesn’t get much more posh and respectable than the main cast of The Staircase: Colin Firth, Toni Collette, Michael Stuhlbarg, Parker Posey, and Juliet Binoche. And along with this genre elevation comes higher expectations from critics and audiences — though this review may be setting the bar a bit high:

Either The Staircase will use its final chapters to set a brilliant new standard in genre-critical true crime, or they’ll be a disastrous display of pop-culture cruelty as bad, or worse, than The Girl From Plainville. Needless to say, we’re proceeding with caution, and may regrade this show once we’ve gathered all the relevant facts.

The demand that iterations of the true-crime form now include metacritiques of their own genre is a sure sign of its newfound respectability. Critics and classy audience members don’t want to be accused of mere “pop-culture cruelty” when they watch shows about murder and mayhem; they want to feel they’re grappling with “society’s insidious fascination with horrible tragedies.”

Whatever you need to tell yourself!

The Staircase is a compelling series so far and a fairly unusual true-crime show, in that it focuses on the maddening undecidability of a case, which the tortuous operations of the legal system only make harder to assess.

It also provides a good examination of rich-people syndrome. The Petersons are typical in never having enough money. They always feel pinched and threatened, no matter how much they’re hauling in. They elevate their way of life to such a ridiculous degree of pampered excess that they put themselves on a joyless treadmill of having to generate more and more income to afford their luxuries, which they come to view as necessities.

Michael Peterson claims to have been sitting poolside — and it’s an enormous kidney-shaped swimming pool in their even more enormous backyard behind their super-spacious house — when his wife, drunk on wine and Valium, fell down the stairs so violently “it looks like her head exploded,” according to the cops who arrive on the scene. The more literal plot point seems to be questioning whether it’s plausible when he says he heard nothing. But the sheer luxury of their surroundings creates a maddening distraction.

The Petersons’ money continues to be a fascinating and horrifying issue throughout the series. For example, Michael is quoted a half-million-dollar total fee by his slick lawyer, David Rudolf (played by the always-superb Michael Stuhlbarg), to mount a serious defense. Even the Petersons struggle to come up with that amount quickly, and it goes without saying that none of us regular working people could possibly raise it. Watch your step, everyone, because you can’t afford to be accused of a serious crime!

As the alleged murder victim, Kathleen Peterson, Toni Collette has the most sympathetic role. But Peterson’s a woman who seems to question nothing about the worst aspects of her own life. She’s a deeply invested executive at a nasty corporation where nobody is safe from rolling layoffs — in one scene, she’s comforting a weeping, just-fired coworker who’s asking why she was axed, and Kathleen has no explanation to give her other than generic terms like “merger” and “downsizing.” And even though she feels that her own well-paid, highly placed job doesn’t keep her safe from layoffs, her criticism of the company never goes beyond eye rolls.

She’s also endlessly manipulated by her husband, played unsparingly by Colin Firth as an opaque, self-absorbed, superficially amiable man who hardly knows how not to lie and obfuscate and revise his life story. A writer with political ambitions, he lost a previous mayoral election because he lied about his Vietnam War record. In trying again with a city council campaign, he’s portrayed as making such selfish use of his wife as an energetic, sunny social presence, planning poolside fundraisers for his political campaigns, that she has to beg off commitments to their children to keep him happy. She finally murmurs to him in the middle of one such ultra-successful event, while a Durham dance company she hired performs for their guests, “I’m so tired, I’m bone-tired.”

Firth has wonderful ways of indicating that, even if Michael Peterson’s not a murderer, he’s a shifty performer in all areas of his life. He smokes a theatrical pipe, a popular 1940s and ’50s smoke for traditional men — Bing Crosby smoked a pipe — but an unusual affectation now. Firth manages to suggest, just by the way he talks animatedly and self-importantly while clenching it in his teeth, that he’s somewhat overplaying his roles of “successful author” and “reliable husband” and “kindly dad.” But when pushed by the terrible circumstances of his wife’s death and the subsequent investigation, he begins to display a weak, blank-eyed, blustering hollowness that alarms his children, even the ones inclined to be blindly loyal to him, such as Michael’s sons from his first marriage, Clayton (Dane DeHaan) and Todd (Patrick Schwarzenegger).

The first child to defect from the blended family’s united front is Caitlin (Olivia DeJonge), Katherine’s daughter from her first marriage, who’s clearly unable to accept the revelation that her stepfather is a bisexual with a very active amorous life in the local community. He claims his wife knew about it and was unfazed, but he can’t prove it, and it was kept a secret from the rest of the household as well as from his friends and colleagues. He can produce his ex-wife, Patty (Trini Alvarado), who confirms that she knew about his many dalliances with men and women decades earlier.

But Patty also reveals the weird fact that Kathleen Peterson wasn’t the first woman Michael was close to who died falling down a flight of stairs. A good friend of his and Patty’s died that way twenty years earlier, while they were living in Germany, and they subsequently adopted their late friend’s two daughters, Margaret (Sophie Turner) and Martha (Odessa Young). Lawyers and documentarians wind up asking these young women if they don’t think it’s an odd coincidence to have two mothers die by falling down stairs . . . ?

The fascination of this case, which has now found an avid audience several times over, swirls around what one critic calls this bizarre impasse: “Peterson couldn’t have done it, but he must have done it.”

The lasting uncertainty has led to wild and fascinating speculation, including what’s called “the owl theory.” Born of desperation, it was the seemingly nutty idea of the Petersons’ neighbor, lawyer Larry Pollard, who suggested late in the trial that Kathleen might’ve been attacked by an owl on her way into the house. Woozy from alcohol, Valium, and the deep slashes in her scalp, perhaps Kathleen headed upstairs to tend her wounds, then slipped and fell backward down the stairs and bled out. It seems there were “microscopic owl feathers” found in her hair after her death, and her scalp lacerations were in trident shapes consistent with talon wounds.

The problem was the idea sounded so ridiculous, none of the authorities would take it on. The cops jokingly included a photo of an owl among their “most wanted” files, and Rudolf, Peterson’s lawyer, felt he couldn’t possibly introduce the owl theory so late in the case — basically during his final summation — without getting laughed out of court.

It seems there’s a dedicated internet following of the owl theory, but it was barely mentioned in the French docuseries. It’ll be interesting to see if the HBO Max series includes it as a possibility. There’s already a bat infestation in the Peterson house that’s been established as one of the stressors in Kathleen’s life right before her death, and a bat has been shown swooping by her head. Maybe there’ll be a “bat theory” instead. Or is it just a way to start laying the groundwork for the owl theory?

I hope so. Because it’s such a pardonable human urge: our keen desire to know whether Kathleen was killed by an owl attack, and whether Michael Peterson, who couldn’t have done it — but must have done it — didn’t actually do it.