‘The Staircase’ is exploitative true crime at its best (and worst)

hbo max stairs It’s like looking into an infinity mirror at a true crime. The more you look at it, the more perplexed the illusion makes you and, at the same time, perplexed by its existence in the first place.

Fascinating, nauseating and arduous all at once, the 2022 true crime drama starring Colin Firth and Toni Collette is not to be confused with the popular 2004 documentary series of the same name on which this fictional show is based. Also not to be confused with the sequel to the original docuseries, ladder II, or any of the countless re-releases over the last two decades on various networks and platforms; the latest is Netflix’s 13-episode version from 2018 that combines all previously released footage with a couple hours of updates.

Clearly, the public (and the TV executives vying for our attention) just can’t get enough of the Michael Peterson story.

In 2001, the wealthy novelist’s privileged life was publicly shattered after he was accused of brutally murdering his wife Kathleen in their lavish North Carolina mansion. The trial dominated the news cycles, as prosecutors insisted the shocking carnage at the scene unequivocally proved Michael’s guilt, while he (and most of his children) insisted it was just a horrific freak accident. .

The documentary gave viewers an intimate, all-access front row seat to Peterson’s defense team, and the devastating effect of the trial on a grieving family forced to perform for the media circus. But the fictional series adds a layer of meta-commentary that makes both the prosecution team and the French documentarians (one of whom actually fell in love with Peterson) as central characters in the story.

By incorporating the filming of this popular true crime media piece into the plot itself, 2022 stairs aims to ask lofty questions about the nature of fact, fiction, and narrative in the American criminal justice system. It’s just as dazzling as this new crop of “high” true-crime subgenres, with a disconcertingly pseudo-intellectual catchphrase proclaiming “There’s no truth without lies.”

It’s as navel as this new crop of “elevated” true crime subgenres.

Call stairs a “classic true crime” is to accurately describe the process of utter dehumanization that every real-life person connected to this horrific death underwent during their decades in the public eye. But HBO Max’s dramatization feels like the final stage in this machine of tragedy and exploitation. Not only does it reduce Kathleen, Michael and their children (one of whom is played by game of Thrones‘ Sophie Turner) into literal fictional characters for our entertainment consumption, but even adds colorful new personalities like real-life prosecutor Freda Black (played by the inimitable Parker Posey).

It’s uniquely grotesque to see this star-studded cast recreate the beats of the well-worn story from this brutal case, especially given how their immense talents can make these IRL folks such compelling characters. The show also goes to great lengths to recreate every blood-soaked second of the last agonizing moments of Kathleen’s life, not just once, but a few times. Collette uses all of her horror acting chops to sell us every painful death rattle in the two different versions of Kathleen’s death put forth by homicide investigators and Michael’s defense team.


Unraveling True Crime: Inside Hollywood’s Greatest Guilty Pleasure Ethic

There are even heavy-handed nods to the camera to highlight what can only be described as “Easter Eggs” for “fans” of this classic true crime case. More than once, teasing introductions to key pieces of hotly debated evidence and hints at speculative theories about the death of this real human being are deployed to great dramatic effect. Aside from the roughness of it all, it begs the question of who this series is for. There’s not a lot of new stuff to get from Hollywood that gives the 20-year-old documentary a fictional sheen, but at the same time the show is written in a way that assumes you already know everything about the case.

While reviewers only received five of the eight episodes in total, it’s clear that the infamous “owl theory” will soon come into play as well, as evidenced by the abundance of bird imagery and some not-so-subtle lines sprinkled throughout. For those outside the circuit, the The “owl theory” is one of those ridiculous alternative hypotheses normalized today by so-called online detectives posting theories about true crime cases on Reddit and TikTok. Like those amateur internet sleuths, the filmmakers don’t seem too interested in questioning the immorality of treating real-world victims like they’re part of a murder-mystery game.

Parker Posey takes on the role of prosecutor Freda Black in

There’s no arguing that this cast absolutely nails their performances.
Credit: HBO Max

While the show aims to ask critical questions about this twisted human drive that fuels the true crime phenomenon, it takes too much delight in sensationalizing Kathleen’s mysterious death to say anything of value. More often than not, it comes across as the most haunting live-action dramatization of Clue: The True True Crime Story Edition. Where was Kathleen murdered? Why, on the stairs, of course! But was she her with the poker in the fireplace or with sleeping pills mixed with a few glasses of wine? Who killed Kathleen on the stairs, with the poker in the fireplace, or in an accidental fall? Wow, it can only be Mr. Peterson himself, or that annoying Mr. Owl!

Billed as the most disturbing live-action dramatization of ‘Clue: The Real True Crime Story Edition’

2022 stairs clearly wants to take a page from Ryan Murphy’s The People vs. OJ Simpson, however, by drawing attention to how American society circumvents the humanity of victims in order to achieve justice in the courtroom. At best, though, it’s just a poor, serious imitation of what made the show worthwhile. There is far less style, cultural relevance, consideration and sensitivity to the surviving loved ones than those real-life victims who must relive the trauma every time we decide to drag their corpses back onto that public stage for “fun”.

Listen, I’m not saying any of this from the top of a morally high horse. I can’t pretend either stairs I finally didn’t get hooked a couple of times. Like so many others, I am a true criminal in good faith. Yes stairs (in all its iterations) embodies exploitative true crime garbage, then I’m its garbage disposal: gobbling up regurgitated human blood from the same instances of violent human tragedy over and over again.

If you’re looking for answers about this case or even the biggest ethical conundrums in the true-crime genre, you won’t find them on HBO Max. stairs. But when it comes to true crime fodder, it’s a safe tally to feed other murder-loving goblins like me.


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