Step Into True Crime with “The Staircase”

Eighteen years after the 2004 true crime docuseries of the same name, The Staircase returns—this time as a narrative retelling. The HBO Max limited series is a fresh take on the mysterious death in 2001 in Durham, North Carolina of Kathleen Peterson, who was found dead at the bottom of a staircase, as well as the subsequent trial of her novelist husband, Michael. The series has a cast of talented actors, including Colin Firth as Michael and Toni Collette as Kathleen, and also stars Michael Stuhlbarg, Juliette Binoche, and Parker Posey.

This version of The Staircase provides a more dramatized and character-driven look at the events surrounding Kathleen’s death and Michael’s trial, providing a fresh perspective on the story while still staying true to the events of the case.

What about true crime fascinates Americans? (Admittedly, this question comes from a woman who falls asleep to true crime podcasts every night.) There are numerous reasons, but one that comes to mind is we have a societal interest in the dark side of human nature. This fascination is not limited to documentaries; there are podcasts, books, and even fictional TV shows and movies. The retelling of these stories provides audiences with a way to satisfy their curiosity about crime and its perpetrators without having to experience the crime directly. Or perhaps it’s morbid curiosity. There was a time public executions served as entertainment. Perhaps the popularity of true crime reflects our desire for a sense of justice and closure served with a side of entertainment.

The Staircase will no doubt please us aficionados. It provides a comprehensive look at the events surrounding the case, including the evidence and arguments presented at trial, as well as the personal lives and perspectives of those involved. The attention to detail and thorough examination of the case raise important questions about the reliability of eyewitness testimony, the handling of evidence, and the motives of the parties involved.

For example, one of the main witnesses for the prosecution was Sophie Burnet. She was the French mistress of Michael Peterson and a key witness in his trial. Burnet testified that she had been in a romantic relationship with Peterson while he was still married to Kathleen and that Peterson had confided in her about the breakdown of their marriage and the events leading up to Kathleen’s death. Her testimony was considered crucial in the prosecution case against Peterson, as it helped paint a picture of an unhappily married man and reveal potential motives for killing his wife.

However, the credibility of Burnet’s testimony was called into question by the defense, who argued that she was unreliable and biased. Personally, I agree with the defense attorney. I wouldn’t want my ex to testify against me about a traffic ticket much less about a murder. Despite this, Peterson was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.

The series is expertly edited and paced, and builds suspense by jumping around in time. So, even the seasoned true crime fan stays engaged. It’s also well-produced and thought-provoking, though sometimes overdramatized. Because it’s a scripted dramatic retelling, some of the events depicted are fictionalized. But it’s still worth a watch. Whether you’re a fan of the original documentary, new to the story, or love true crime, this series is for you.

The Staircase
Created by Antonio Campos
Starring Colin Firth and Toni Collette
Available to stream on HBO Max