HBO Max’s The Staircase is like staring into an infinity mirror of true crime. The more you watch it, the more idly transfixed you become by the illusion — and simultaneously perplexed by its existence in the first place.
Fascinating, nauseating, and a slog all at once, the 2022 true crime drama starring Colin Firth and Toni Collette should not be confused with the wildly popular 2004 documentary series of the same name that this fictionalized show is based on. It also should not be confused with the original docuseries’ sequel, The Staircase II, or any of the countless re-releases over the past two decades across various networks and platforms — the latest being Netflix’s 2018 13-episode version combining all previously released footage with a couple hours’ worth of updates.
Clearly audiences (and the TV execs vying for our attention) simply cannot get enough of Michael Peterson’s story.
Back in 2001, the wealthy novelist’s privileged life was very publicly shattered after being accused of brutally murdering his wife Kathleen in their ritzy North Carolina mansion. The trial dominated news cycles, as prosecutors insisted that the shocking carnage of the scene unequivocally proved Michael’s guilt, while he (and most of their children) insisted it was just a horrible freak accident.
The documentary gave viewers an intimate, all-access front row seat to Peterson’s defense team, and the trial’s shattering effect on a grieving family forced to perform for the media circus. But the fictionalized series adds a layer of meta-commentary that renders both the prosecution team and the French documentarians (one of whom actually became enamored with Peterson) as central characters in the story.
By incorporating the filming of this popular piece of true crime media into the plot itself, 2022’s The Staircase aims to ask lofty questions about the nature of fact, fiction, and narrative in the American criminal justice system. It’s as navel-gazey as this new crop of “elevated” true crime subgenres gets, with a puzzlingly pseudo-intellectual tagline that proclaims “There is No Truth Without Lies.”
It’s as navel-gazey as this new crop of “elevated” true crime subgenres gets.
To call The Staircase a “true crime classic” is to accurately describe the total dehumanization process that every single real-life person connected to this awful death underwent during their decades in the public eye. But the HBO Max dramatization feels like the final stage of this tragedy-exploitation machine. It not only reduces Kathleen, Michael, and their kids (one of whom is played by Game of Thrones‘ Sophie Turner) into literal fictional characters for our entertainment consumption, but even adds colorful new personalities like real-life prosecutor Freda Black (portrayed by the inimitable Parker Posey).
It’s uniquely grotesque to watch this star-studded cast re-enact the well-worn story beats of this brutal case, especially because of how their immense talents can turn these IRL people into such compelling characters. The show also goes to painstaking lengths to recreate every single blood-soaked second of Kathleen’s final agonizing moments of life—not just once, but a couple times. Collette uses all her horror-acting chops to really sell us on every painful death rattle in the two different versions of Kathleen’s death posited by the homicide investigators and Michael’s defense team.
There are even heavy-handed winks to the camera to spotlight what one can only describe as “easter eggs” for “fans” of this classic true-crime did-he-dunnit case. More than once, teasing introductions to key pieces of heavily-debated evidence and hints at the speculative theories about this actual human being’s death are deployed for great dramatic effect. Aside from the grossness of it all, it raises the question of who this series is even for. There isn’t a lot of new stuff to be gleaned from Hollywood giving the 20-year-old documentary a fictionalized glow-up, but at the same time the show is written in a way that assumes you know everything about the case already.
While reviewers only received five out of the eight total episodes, it’s clear that the infamous “owl theory” will soon come into play too, as evidenced by the abundance of bird imagery and some not-so-subtle lines sprinkled throughout. For those out-of-the-loop, the “owl theory” is one of those preposterous alternate hypotheses normalized today by so-called online sleuths who post theories about true crime cases to Reddit and TikTok. Like those amateur internet sleuths, the filmmakers don’t seem very interested in interrogating the immorality of treating real-world victims like they’re part of a murder mystery game.
Credit: HBO Max
While the show purports to ask critical questions about this twisted human impulse that fuels the true crime phenomenon, it delights far too much in sensationalizing Kathleen’s mysterious death to say anything of value. More often than not, it comes across as the most disturbing live-action dramatization of Clue: The Real True Crime Story Edition. Where was Kathleen murdered? Why, on the staircase, of course! But was it with the fireplace poker or sleeping pills mixed with a few glasses of wine? Who killed Kathleen on the staircase, with either the fireplace poker or an accidental fall? Why, it can only be Mr. Peterson himself — or that pesky Mr. Owl!
It comes across as the most disturbing live-action dramatization of ‘Clue: The Real True Crime Story Edition’
2022’s The Staircase clearly wants to take a page out of Ryan Murphy’s The People vs. OJ Simpson, though, by calling attention to how American society elides the humanity of victims to put on a good performance of justice in the courtroom. At best, though, it’s only a poor, self-serious imitation of what made that show worthwhile. There’s far less style, cultural relevance, thoughtfulness, and sensitivity toward the loved ones who still survive those IRL victims and must relive the trauma every time we decide to drag their corpses back onto that public stage for “fun.”
Listen, I don’t say any of this from atop a moral high horse. I also can’t pretend that The Staircase didn’t eventually hook me a couple of times. Like so many others, I’m a bonafide true crime bottom-feeder. If The Staircase (in all its iterations) embodies exploitative true crime trashiness, then I am its garbage disposal — guzzling the regurgitated human blood from the same cases of violent human tragedy over and over again.
If you’re looking for answers about this case or even the larger ethical conundrums of the true-crime genre, you won’t find it in HBO Max’s The Staircase. But when it comes to true crime fodder, it’s a retelling sure to feed other murder-loving goblins like myself.