Review by Sean Boelman
Many of the crime mysteries that have been dominating television in recent years aren’t all that mysterious. Sure, you’re trying to figure out who the killer is, but the various red herrings and twists along the way start to become rather cumbersome. Antonio Campos’s The Staircase is one of the more intriguing offerings in the genre, with less of a focus on the crime itself and more of an emphasis on the bigger story.
Based on the docuseries of the same name, the show tells the story of Michael Peterson, a crime novelist who is accused of murdering his wife after finding her dead at the bottom of a staircase in their home. Like so many other crime documentaries, this one was hugely popular on Netflix when it debuted a few years back, so audiences are likely familiar with this bizarre tale.
The pacing of the series is relatively interesting, because in an eight-episode series, the courtroom aspect is virtually done in the first four episodes. It’s refreshing to see the aspect of the story that is often the focus of the genre be eschewed in favor of the more intimate elements, allowing the series to subtly subvert expectations without the use of obvious methods like twists.
Campos really leans heavily into the portions of the story that involve Peterson’s sexuality, and the result is quite compelling. The show poses some good questions about how Peterson’s identity may have changed how this trial proceeded. As a result, it feels like this exists to do more than just exploit the trauma of the people involved.
However, focusing on these elements does prevent the show from exploring some of the other characters in depth. A lot more should have been done with Peterson’s wife. Through flashbacks, we get some background on their relationship, but this feels like the bare minimum of context, not genuine characterization for her.
It’s a shame, because Toni Collette delivers yet another fabulous performance in her role, bringing a mysterious quality to the character. They just don’t give her as much to do as they should. Colin Firth, on the other hand, nails it in his meaty role. As if his storied career wasn’t enough, his nuanced portrayal of this character is some of his finest work.
The style with which Campos approaches shooting the series is also extremely claustrophobic. It works really well in creating an atmosphere that is unsettling but not entirely disturbing. There’s a bit of an odd sense of humor to much of the series that also helps it stand out from many of its pitch-black peers.
The Staircase takes a very unique approach to the genre, but it’s because of the very unusual nature of its story. Both stylistically and narratively, Antonio Campos’s style is fantastic and will surely make this series the talk of the town.
The Staircase debuts on HBO Max on May 5 with additional episodes streaming subsequent Thursdays. Five out of eight episodes reviewed.