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‘The Staircase’ has more twists than the true-crime doc it’s based on

Colin Firth and Toni Collette star in HBO Max’s uneven retelling of the famous case that’s more intimate yet more meta

Colin Firth and Toni Collette as Michael and Kathleen Peterson in “The Staircase.” (HBO Max)
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Sometimes it feels like the only stories Hollywood is interested in telling anymore are the ones we already know.

Sequels, prequels, remakes and reboots now dominate multiplex cinema, with no end in sight. Podcasts have recently joined novels, plays, magazine articles and theme-park rides as adaptation fodder in the era of endless content. Fifteen years ago, “30 Rock” cracked wise about a hypothetical “movie based on a musical based on a movie.” But in 2020, satire was outmatched by reality once more when that series’ creator, Tina Fey, announced an extremely of-our-time project: a film version of her “Mean Girls” stage show, i.e., a movie based on a musical based on a movie based on a book.

In prestige television today, the go-to source material is true crime, most narrativized already by journalists, podcasters and documentarians. Just since February, we’ve gotten the scammer tales “Inventing Anna” and “The Dropout,” the murder mysteries “The Thing About Pam” and “Under the Banner of Heaven,” and revisits of life-altering legal woes like “Pam & Tommy,” “Joe vs. Carole” and “The Girl From Plainville.”

On the whole, these shows are packed with A-listers but middling in quality; save for a few exceptions, they tend to be low on fresh insights and real surprises. Against that lackluster standard, HBO Max’s dramatization of “The Staircase” — based on the French docuseries of the same name, which first debuted stateside in 2005 and added updates in 2013 and 2018 — is at least notable for trying something new. In contrast to most of its peers, the well-acted yet droopily paced eight-part miniseries challenges its audience to think more critically about its nonfiction predecessor, the storytelling choices it made and why.

The original “Staircase” doc chronicled — eventually for 16 years — the travails of Michael Peterson, a novelist and failed mayoral candidate in Durham, N.C., accused of killing his wife, Kathleen Peterson. The case fascinated because neither the prosecution nor the defense could offer a fully convincing account of how Kathleen, a corporate executive, ended up dead at the bottom of the stairs in the couple’s mansion. Michael could ooze sincerity, but he’d already been exposed as a liar. During his thwarted political career, the former Marine had deceived voters about receiving a Purple Heart in Vietnam.

Prosecutors also made much hay out of the gay pornography on his computer, exploiting the biphobia of the mid-2000s that portrayed men attracted to both sexes as shifty and unreliable. In interviews, filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade has said that, with “The Staircase,” he had intended to make a film about how the justice system worked for someone White and wealthy, like Michael. According to the docuseries that resulted, which ended up sympathizing with Michael while never uncovering the truth behind Kathleen’s final moments, the system was a catastrophe.

The long, sensational murder trial behind Netflix’s ‘The Staircase’

The fictionalized miniseries takes a more intimate, and yet more meta, approach to the case, exploring perspectives, details and at least one outré but compelling theory discarded by de Lestrade, who himself features as a character. (The new drama is probably best experienced as a supplement to the docuseries, rather than a substitute for it.) Colin Firth and Toni Collette star as empty-nesters Michael and Kathleen, whose blended family of seven includes three children in college when the Peterson matriarch is found dead two weeks before Christmas 2001. (None of the five children stem from Michael and Kathleen’s union, but are the result of previous marriages and adoptions — a factor that may play a role in the kids’ eventual splintering.) Frequent jumps in time help humanize Kathleen, who’s embodied with an earthy warmth and reflexive fair-mindedness by Collette. She emerges as fully fleshed, a loving but exhausted woman contending with a restless, demanding husband and a large brood that needs more help than she had hoped they would by this phase of her life.

Glum and plodding — and occasionally grisly — the series gets off to a slow start, even as it posits a primal nightmare scenario: What if you suddenly found your soul mate dead and you were the sole suspect? In Paris, the case catches the attention of two freshly minted Oscar winners on the hunt for their next project, director Jean-Xavier (Vincent Vermignon) and producer Denis (Frank Feys). Upon arriving in Durham, the duo are silently elated that Michael is much more promising as a “character” than they could have hoped. Juliette Binoche also co-stars as a woman whose contributions to the docuseries may be just as crucial as her above-the-line collaborators’.

The dozens of cuts and wounds discovered on Kathleen’s body — but especially the seven deep lacerations on her scalp — persuade her sisters (Rosemarie DeWitt and Maria Dizzia), as well as her sole biological daughter, Caitlin (Olivia DeJonge), that Michael is responsible for her death. For his part, Michael betrays little emotion when he orders his other daughters (Sophie Turner and Odessa Young) to cut Caitlin out of their lives for the sake of his trial — and Firth is fantastic at revealing how quickly his character can flit between pragmatism and casual cruelty. Michael is loath to spend his entire fortune on his legal defense, estimated to cost half a million dollars, lest his children end up with nothing. It’s easy to see how resentful Caitlin would be in response, seeing her inheritance help pay the legal bills of the man she believes killed her mother.

Where Michael is sometimes thoughtlessly callous, his lawyer, David Rudolf (a softly oppressive Michael Stuhlbarg), is oily and calculating, instructing one of the loyal daughters, for instance, to change her hair color for the sake of optics. These details don’t quite cohere into a whole, and the sons (Dane DeHaan and Patrick Schwarzenegger), especially, are thinly drawn. But we do get a sense of how devastating Kathleen’s death and Michael’s subsequent prosecution were for the entire family — and how much more surreal it was to simultaneously become an object of tabloid exploitation and a documentary subject trailed by a camera crew.

It’s unfortunate that the first half of the season is so poorly paced, since some viewers might not stick around until the end of the fourth episode. That’s when “The Staircase” suggests a dramatic gearshift to something else entirely: the rare fictionalization that underscores the many narrative decisions that went into piecing together its ostensibly more straightforward, fly-on-the-wall precursor. It’s impossible to know where this sweeter yet potentially troubling development will go (only five episodes were provided to critics), but creators Antonio Campos and Maggie Cohn seem to indicate that the unknowability of this case extends much further than the matter of Michael Peterson’s guilt. The twists in the making of the docuseries, it turns out, rival the bizarre swerves in the homicide case itself.

“The Staircase” does limit some of its own potential by orbiting the docuseries so closely. Michael is convinced that his anti-police columns in the local newspaper have biased law enforcement against him, and that’s a narrative strand left frustratingly dangling in the previewed chapters. But the series’ greatest letdown is its minimal sense of the setting that so suffused the docuseries. Durham is “a big town that feels small,” says de Lestrade at one point, but, at least in the episodes so far, it fails to locate the precise turn-of-the-millennium homophobia that likely prejudiced the jury against the real-life Peterson. In the end, its pleasures are rather cerebral, less a whodunit than a story about telling stories — and the omissions in hopeful service of a greater truth.

The Staircase premieres Thursday on HBO Max with Episodes 1-3; new episodes will stream weekly.

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