Colin Firth and Toni Collette shine in ‘The Staircase’ on HBO Max
As has become common practice, HBO Max has asked critics to avoid spoilers regarding “The Staircase,” its standout new drama series.
Of course, okay. But really? The story, about a writer named Michael Peterson accused of killing his wife Kathleen in 2001, was the subject of a brilliant documentary – so pivotal that its making is a crucial and continuing part of this series – and several podcasts. For example, the popular “My Favorite Murder” explored it in its 100th episode.
That’s a lot of mileage on a kill. Too much, one might think. With all due respect to the shy HBO Max spoiler, is there anything new to say?
Colin Firth nails Michael Peterson’s slippery view of truth
Absolutely. “The Staircase” seizes the television. The true-crime craze has spread like a plague, but it’s the best the genre has to offer. Part of that is the story, which is downright bizarre. But a lot also has to do with Antonio Campos, the director (“Martha Marcy May Marlene”) who created the series and the cast, which is uniformly outstanding.
It starts with Colin Firth as Peterson, a former sailor and successful writer from Durham, North Carolina. He and his wife Kathleen (still good Toni Collette), an executive, were both previously married; their blended family seems almost supernaturally happy.
There are vague signs of stress — Kathleen’s company is laying people off, the family is talking about a scandal they only call “spring break” — but for the most part things seem to be going pretty well.
Of course, we learn this in flashback, as the series begins with the police outside the Petersons’ house. Michael, who called 911, is hysterical. Kathleen is lying at the bottom of the stairs, dead in what is practically a pool of blood. (The series is graphic in its depictions of the various possibilities surrounding his death.)
Long story short: Michael claims Kathleen fell down the stairs after drinking and taking Valium. The police think he killed her. They arrest him and frame him for Kathleen’s murder.
This is just the beginning.
Michael, it turns out, has long been somewhat slippery about the details of his life, something Firth embodies with every word, every gesture. A run for Durham City Council revealed he lied about receiving a Purple Heart in Vietnam, which didn’t endear him to voters. During the campaign, he went hard after the man who would eventually sue him, Jim Hardin (Cullen Moss), who also doesn’t do him any favors.
Parker Posey is perfect as a lawyer. Just like Michael Stuhlbarg
Prosecutors discover that Peterson is bisexual, which forms the basis of their case. Hardin is assisted by Freda Black (Parker Posey, absolutely perfect as a certain type of Southern woman who can look over the glasses perched on the end of her nose with a look so disdainful and withered it could curdle milk) .
Hardin and Black argue that Kathleen found gay porn on Michael’s computer and during a fight he killed her. Michael claims Kathleen knew and approved of his interest in men – an interest that could be more than casual internet browsing.
That’s the thing with Michael. There is always more to the story. Still. For example, there’s a late development in the game that’s either coincidental or something more sinister that’s jaw-dropping. Michael’s star attorney, David Rudolph (Michael Stuhlbarg, a nice mix of arrogance and what can pass for empathy, as long as the checks are cashed), is baffled.
It’s a state that many characters find themselves in, almost constantly. The public too. The difference is that for the characters it’s a bad thing. For the public, it is addictive.
Mixed in with all of this, the French filmmakers are working on the documentary with unusually open access to the case, which adds yet another layer. And another.
The pressure is intense, and the strain weighs on the family. (Rosemarie DeWitt gives a scathing performance as one of Kathleen’s sisters who no longer needs Michael.)
You may know how it all goes. You can not. Either way, the truth is so elusive here, and “The Staircase” so expertly realized, you’ll be hooked.
Available on HBO Max on May 5.
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