The Staircase Season 1 Review – Plays the true-crime tropes well in this compelling drama

Season 1

Episode Guide

Episode 1 -| Review Score – 3.5/5
Episode 2 -| Review Score – 4.5/5
Episode 3 -| Review Score – 4/5
Episode 4 -| Review Score – 3.5/5
Episode 5 -| Review Score – 3.5/5
Episode 6 -| Review Score – 4/5
Episode 7 -| Review Score – 4/5
Episode 8 -| Review Score – 4/5


The Peterson case was a mystery shrouded in perception, like all famous trials. Technically, there is no legal classification of its outcome due to the Alford Plea. But in the court of the public, Michael Peterson forever stands on either side of the scales.

The new HBO miniseries stars Colin Firth as the alleged murderer and it is a mix of fiction and fact, brought to life in riveting fashion by creator Antonio Campos. The inherent urgency of the true-crime genre is well captured in his narrative, which is heavily influenced by Netflix’s original docuseries about the case.

The actual details of this are fascinating. Kathleen Atwater Peterson, a brimming socialite in the upper echelons of Durham county, was found dead in strange circumstances at the foot of the staircase of her posh house. Almost everything at first glance about the “crime scene” was inconsistent with a fall, giving way to investigative speculation of a homicide. Mike Peterson, Kathleen’s husband, was taken into custody after the coroner’s (Dr. Raddisch) report revealed the cause of death. This sparked the long, drawn-out process that had significant ups and downs for the Peterson family. 

‘The Staircase’ promised something different than the documentary in this adaptation. Things like new insights into how the dysfunctional family dealt with the tragedy and its impact on their lives were among them. It would be fair to say that Campos infuses the story with a decadent perversity that makes it more addictive but at the cost of its subjects’ personal dignity.

More often than not, these projects are determined to negate easily made – and at times true – accusations of exploitation to arrive at a more meaningful juncture. For Jean Lestrade, the creator of the original docuseries, it was to showcase the flaws and biases in the criminal justice system. For Campos, the goal seems uncertain.

Stories like these work as a function of their storyteller’s integrity and vision. Here, Campos’ ghoulish tone is suggestive of a more sensationalized representation of the case, making optimum use of his high-profile star cast. He wants to step up from the serious-minded and meditative approach of Lestrade to give his own version a speculative and zany spirit. His color comes from the moral ambiguity in Lestrade’s work that is cleverly brought out in the two halves of the miniseries. 

Quite delicately, Campos uses the subjective objectivity of truth to his advantage. It plays to his creative license, even expanding its already audacious scope. One of the things that he does right is providing the right kind of dramatic heft to the characters. Throughout watching the documentary, we all wondered in hushed tones about the behind-the-scenes deliberations that ironically became the central focus here. The very real trauma that haunted the family didn’t come out as well. But Campos made sure that his narrative pulled the right strings. They may not have always been on the mark – at times guilty of being too wistful – but gave the audience an interesting dynamic to explore.

‘The Staircase’ greatly benefits from the creative choice to present the story in this structure. It is a visual marvel that engages you on an intimate level. Photographers make sure that the cinematography blends the unique aspects of the documentary-style shots and the preciseness of modern-day filmmaking. The seamless weaving in of the footage from the different timelines was at its peak in the third episode and the final one; the two sequences that reaffirm Campos’ creative genius.

Colin Firth is convincing as Michael. He brings his typical meticulous archetyping to Michael, playing him as a parabolic contradiction of emotions. Firth is mindful of the human conflicts in Michael’s nature. The bouquet of emotions is engaged to the hilt in the very last moments of the season finale. Collette does not have too much screen time but renders a performance that has the exact emotional nuance to be respectful to Kathleen’s persona and create a veritable portrait in the dramatic tone.

There is no doubt as to how compelling this series is in parts. The gamut of choices – from casting to set design, are collaborative and calibrated in their attempts to leave a lasting impression. Campos offsets the banality of the legal process with the thrill of theatrics, which is a reasonable exchange given how inherent this element was in the story itself. HBO’s ‘The Staircase’ might not be completely truthful to its muse, but it presents a compilation that is well worth watching.

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  • Verdict - 7/10

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