Amidst an apparently endless flood of true-crime series, what can possibly set any of them apart anymore? Well, a charming, wily murder suspect and a death that remains unexplained is a pretty unbeatable combination. That is the allure of the French documentary The Staircase, one of the first big successes in the genre. Still engrossing today, the series had astonishing access to Michael Peterson, accused of killing his wife, Kathleen, in their home in an upscale area of Durham, North Carolina. The same combination shapes the new HBO drama based on that documentary, with Colin Firth giving a sly, charismatic performance as Peterson, who in real life is now 78 and still maintains he is innocent of the crime.
While the new series has the same title as the original, though, its tone more accurately reflects the documentary’s French title, Soupçons, or Suspicions. The non-fiction is sympathetic to Peterson and largely ignores the fact that the filmmakers are in the room. The fiction takes a more sceptical view and, widening the lens on the story, even includes the documentarians as characters. It’s an intelligent approach that almost works, but not as well as it should. A scattershot structure and a couple of underwritten major characters, including Kathleen (Toni Collette) and Peterson’s attorney, David Rudolf (Michael Stuhlbarg), make the show less taut and suspenseful than a crime story should be.
Fortunately, viewers are carried along by the first-rate cast and the intrigue of the unsolved mystery. Even now, 21 years later, no one can definitively say how Kathleen Peterson died. The prosecution claimed that Peterson was a liar and cheat who bludgeoned her to death. The defence said they had a lovely marriage and she died in a fall down a sharply-angled staircase. A reasonable conclusion, after watching the documentary, is that there are holes in both arguments.
In real life (slight spoilers in this paragraph), the documentary’s director, Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, started following Peterson not long after his arrest and continued through his trial and conviction, sitting in on strategy meetings with his legal team, talking to his four grown children, but mostly listening to Peterson, who makes a good case for himself. In 2013 and 2017, De Lestrade made two sequels, chronicling Peterson’s release after eight years in prison and the plea deal that set him free for good. Called an Alford plea, it’s a convenient wrinkle in the US justice system, an agreement that acknowledges there is enough evidence to make a conviction likely, even though the accused party does not admit guilt.
In addition to its more doubtful tone about all that, the fictional version fills in the backstory. It starts in 2017 when Peterson is about to go to court to finalise his plea, and quickly goes back to December 2001 when he makes a frantic emergency call, saying that his wife is unconscious. Throughout, the show flashes back to Kathleen and their family life, and forward to his legal battle.
Kathleen is a stressed-out executive who drinks so much that she once stumbles on that staircase – which, of course, doesn’t mean that’s how she eventually died. Collette isn’t given much to work with beyond that. Michael is a novelist whom we see very early on making a surreptitious call to a male escort, a fact the prosecutors later use to paint him as disreputable, even immoral. We come to see that he is a proven liar, who falsely claimed during a campaign for public office that he had won a Purple Heart for serving in Vietnam. Lying, of course, doesn’t make him a killer. Hmmm.