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New 'Staircase' series emphasizes the tragedy behind the sensational true crime story

Colin Firth plays Michael Peterson, a writer who was charged with his wife's death, in the HBO series <em>The Staircase.</em>
Colin Firth plays Michael Peterson, a writer who was charged with his wife's death, in the HBO series The Staircase.

Back when TV was in black-and-white, there was a cop show called Dragnetwhose hero, Sgt. Joe Friday, was famous for telling witnesses, "Just the facts, ma'am." Using the facts he got, he then caught the perp.

In real life, of course, things are not so neat. It's often hard to know what "just the facts" are, let alone what they mean.

Consider the story of Michael Peterson, a Durham, N.C., writer whose wife, Kathleen, was found dead at the bottom of the staircase in their house in 2001. He said she fell; the authorities said he killed her. The evidence was ambiguous.

Three years later, French filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade turned the case into an acclaimed documentary series, The Staircase, that would set the template for countless true crime series to follow. Imagine Dateline if it was exciting, not hokey.

Peterson's saga has now been dramatized in a moody HBO Max series, also titled The Staircase. Created by Antonio Campos and boasting a crack cast led by Colin Firth andJuliette Binoche, this new version starts with the stuff from the original series and then expands outwards. Hopscotching to and fro over a 16-year period, Campos seeks to reveal truths — and capture emotions — left out of the earlier series.

Firth plays Peterson, a man with an apparently idyllic family life. He has a loving marriage to Kathleen (Toni Collette) and happy relationships with their blended family, which includes two sons and three daughters.

But on Dec. 9, 2001, he calls 911 and tells them that his wife is lying collapsed on the stairs. By the time help arrives she's dead. Although Peterson explains that Kathleen fell while drinking and hit her head, the D.A.'s office is convinced that he murdered her with an implement — in part, it seems, because they disapprove of what they learn about his sex life.

Michael Peterson appears in court with his attorney David Rudolf.
/ Netflix
Michael Peterson appears in court with his attorney David Rudolf.

From here things snowball. Not only does the investigation produce startling twist after twist, but the Peterson family starts splintering in all sorts of ways. And in a fresh narrative strand, Campos includes the story of the French filmmakers turning up in Durham, telling Peterson they want to use his story as an example of American justice. Perhaps vaingloriously, he agrees.

Now, The Staircase is very skillfully turned. Campos directs with more visual panache than usual for TV, and he wins lots of nifty performances, including those of Parker Posey, who captures the scornfully amused righteousness of prosecutor Freda Black, and Collette, who endows the dead Kathleen with a living presence.

The whole show revolves around Firth, who hasn't been this good since the film A Single Man. Losing himself in Peterson, who's sort of a tainted Mr. Darcy, he does a spectacular job of conjuring up a man who's charismatic, erudite, slippery and entitled — he's sure the justice system will be on his side.

Big mistake. In fact, both versions of The Staircase detail the workings of a justice system filled with pricey lawyers, ambitious district attorneys, bickering experts and appeals to a jury's cultural biases that may have nothing to do with the evidence or even the case at hand.

By making the French film team part of the action — we see them urging Peterson to show more emotion on camera — Campos accentuates the idea that it's narrative, not truth, that matters. "What is justice?" asks Binoche's character. "Two sides competing to tell a better story."

Kathleen Peterson was found dead Dec. 9, 2001, at the bottom of a staircase in her Durham, N.C., home.
/ Netflix
Kathleen Peterson was found dead Dec. 9, 2001, at the bottom of a staircase in her Durham, N.C., home.

When it comes to telling a better story, this dramatized Staircase can't match the addictively fizzy energy of the original documentary which you can watch on Netflix. Where the French film enthralls us with shocks and surprises — it's clearly riveted by the showbiz strangeness of high-profile American trials — Campos wants to explore something less fun: the painful human reality of the Peterson case. He leads us into the murk, both emotionally and intellectually.

Which brings us back to facts. It's one measure of their ultimate unknowability in the Peterson case that — through the five preview episodes anyway — Campos doesn't tell us whether Peterson actually murdered Kathleen. Rather than attempt to solve the mystery, he wants us to feel the weight of her death and what happens to everyone in its wake. He clearly agrees with the words of the French producer: "Innocent or guilty — the Peterson ending will always be tragic."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.

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