Column: With Colin Firth and 'The Staircase,' HBO Max turns true crime into truly riveting drama
In these times of Extreme Peak TV, true crime is the streaming gift that keeps on giving.
Whether it is the saga of convicted tech-fraudster Elizabeth Holmes ("The Dropout," on Hulu); the tabloid tale of convicted New York City larcenist Anna Sorokin (Netflix's "Inventing Anna"); or the creepy exploits of the now-disgraced psychiatrist Dr. Isaac Herschkopf ("The Shrink Next Door" on Apple TV+), our queues are filled with ripped-from-the-headlines dramatic series that began as books, podcasts and/or documentaries based on true-crime stories.
Now, HBO Max has given us "The Staircase," a juicy true-crime dramatic miniseries based on the true-crime documentary series of the same name. That nesting-doll formula might be getting a bit stale, but with an Emmy-worthy Colin Firth leading a deep-dish cast, "The Staircase" is gripping TV at its white-knuckle finest.
Like Jean-Xavier de Lestrade's groundbreaking 2004 documentary series, the HBO Max version attempts to unwind the complicated story behind the death of Kathleen Peterson (played by Toni Collette), which may or may not have been at the hands of her husband, author Michael Peterson (Firth).
On the evening of Dec. 9, 2001, a hysterical Michael Peterson called 911 from the couple's mansion in Durham, N.C., to say that Kathleen had fallen down the stairs. When the police arrived, they discovered a battered, blood-covered Kathleen and what looked not at all like an accident and very much like a crime scene.
Michael attributed her fall to a combination of alcohol and Valium; the authorities almost immediately attributed her death to Michael.
From there, showrunners Antonio Campos ("The Devil All the Time") and Maggie Cohn ("Impeachment: American Crime Story") take you on a dizzying eight-episode search for the truth, a journey made even trickier by the fact that truth-telling is not really a part of Michael's skill set.
Michael is shifty about a lot of things. His sexuality. How he came to be the father of daughters Margaret (Sophie Turner of "Game of Thrones") and Martha (Odessa Young, "The Stand"). His definition of "infidelity." This is a big problem for his big-time attorney David Rudolf (Michael Stuhlbarg, "Call Me By Your Name"), but it makes for riveting viewing.
In "The Staircase," the did-he-or-didn't-he question comes up early and often, as the prosecution team builds a convincing scenario that Michael's many lies caught up with him, and Kathleen paid the price, and the defense tells an equally compelling story about a marriage of soulmates that ended in a tragic, but explainable accident.
Is Michael a manipulative, lying murderer? Or is he a complicated, convention-flouting man caught in a never-ending nightmare? Thanks to Firth's unsparing, but subtle performance, Michael could be any of those things at any time.
In tender moments with Collette, Firth makes you believe that Michael loved Kathleen too much to be her killer. When he is smoothly chatting-up a potential male hook-up while Kathleen is organizing a fund-raising dinner for his city-council campaign, you're not so sure.
And when his attempts to justify keeping a crucial piece of information from his legal team ("It was 20 years ago!" he bellows. "In Germany!"), Firth looks and sounds like a man who is at the end of his tether. But is it because he's being tortured by awful circumstances, or because the awful truth is catching up with him?
As portrayed by Firth, you never know what to think or how to feel. And given the many twists and turns the case has taken over its long legal journey, he captured the real Michael Peterson in all of his possible incarnations.
With the exception of a miscast Parker Posey as prosecutor Freda Black, the starry "Staircase" cast is a fine match for the show's leading man. The vibrant Collette gives Kathleen so many layers — stressed, but graciously capable; elegant, yet impulsive; loving but maybe not entirely trusting — that this crime victim is anything but silent. Collette's Kathleen is as complicated in life as she is in death.
As the shell-shocked children in the Petersons' blended family, Turner, Young, Olivia DeJonge, Patrick Schwarzenegger and Dane DeHaan are fiercely devoted to their parents but vulnerable to the influence of the many manipulative adults in their increasingly fractured lives. The quietly commanding Stuhlbarg plays Michael's attorney as both an ally and a shark, and keep an eye out for Juliette Binoche in a role critics are not supposed to talk about in advance.
The first two episodes lose some steam during their many time shifts, but when all the storylines converge in the third episode, you will be more than ready to follow "The Staircase" wherever it chooses to go. When it comes to the Petersons, you can't always believe what you see. But you can't stop watching, either.
The first three episodes of "The Staircase" are streaming now on HBO Max, followed by one new episode a week through June 9.