True crime folds back in on itself with “The Staircase,” perhaps the only recent, high-profile miniseries to feature a scene where documentarians sit outside a recording booth as musicians work on the mournful score for a true-crime miniseries. Yet “The Staircase,” an eight-episode HBO Max miniseries, isn’t exactly a meta exercise, either. It’s full of tricky, complicated ambiguities that are often riveting and sometimes just baffling. (It’s all the more slippery only having seen the first five episodes provided for review.)
The documentarians making sure the background music strikes those familiar notes of gravitas are a pair of French filmmakers who have taken an interest in the real-life crime drama of Michael Peterson (Colin Firth), an American on trial for the 2001 murder of his wife Kathleen (Toni Collette). Michael claims that he came across his wife’s bloodied body at the foot of a staircase, indicating that she must have slipped and fell, out of earshot from him; the prosecution believes that she was beaten to death.
The case quickly fractures a blended, extended, borderline convoluted family, which includes Michael’s biological sons Clayton (Dane DeHaan) and Todd (Patrick Schwarzenegger) from a previous marriage; his adopted daughters Margaret (Sophie Turner) and Martha (Odessa Young), who he and his ex-wife took in after their parents died; and Kathleen’s daughter Caitlin (Olivia DeJonge), from her own previous marriage. To capture all of these tense relationships, the series skips around in time. A chunk of it proceeds forward through Kathleen’s death, the aftermath and run-up to the trial, the trial itself, and beyond; there are also flashbacks that fill in family history in the months leading up to the incident. Considering that there are also a few elusive scenes set in 2017 featuring a character played by Juliette Binoche, the remaining three episodes will need to continue jumping ahead to cover all of its ground.
The plotting of all this is relatively straightforward and easy to follow, even when the show offers two versions of Kathleen’s death, seemingly without endorsing either of them as definitive. The murk (and occasionally confusion) comes from the characters’ various relationships, especially within the family—intentionally so, though not always productively. The show offers vivid details for supporting characters like Michael’s lawyer David (Michael Stuhlbarg) or the prosecutor Freda Black (Parker Posey), who at times seems more disgusted by revelations about Michael’s sex life than the idea that he might have committed murder. But there are a lot of figures flitting in and out of the narrative (in the first five episodes, Rosemarie DeWitt is probably the strongest actor given little to do), a crowd that only increases when the show gives more time to the documentary crew led by director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade (Vincent Vermignon).
This version of “The Staircase” is neither a making-of series about the docu-series that resulted (also called “The Staircase,” with a run spread across its initial eight episodes in 2004, two more in 2013, and a final three for Netflix in 2018) nor a straight recreation of its events in fictionalized form. But it does acknowledge the documentarians and makes them part of the story—moreso after Peterson receives his initial verdict halfway through the series, and the filmmakers continue working on their project as others attempt to adjust to a new status quo. So will the next iteration of this material feature a fictionalized version of the HBO Max series’ director Antonio Campos and his crew sorting through the documentary footage in order to make their series?
Through the fifth episode, the documentary angle isn’t the show’s most interesting. The best moments evoke the queasy fascination of a good (or at least entertaining) true-crime doc, built around a strong performance from Firth, who ably translates his often-uptight Britishness into a rougher-hewn American equivalent. Michael presents himself as kind of a forthright, semi-collegiate man of reason, and Firth captures how opaque that mask of upper-middle-class propriety can be. The fact that the mostly-grown kids’ ages are difficult to discern becomes an advantage, as this neo-Brady Bunch family reverts to kids listening on the stairs because they’re not completely privy to adult conversations.
If the emotional component of all this feels a little light, sometimes even clinical in its quasi-objectivity, it’s still an impressive production. Creator Antonio Campos, who also directs six of the eight episodes (“Fear Street” director Leigh Janiak handles the other two), brings in some ambitious filmmaking flourishes, like depicting Todd’s arrival at the scene of his stepmother’s death with an extended, unbroken taken, capturing the emotional chaos and uncertainties of such a horrific shift, or the second-episode sequence where a fundraiser at the Peterson home is intercut—blended, really, courtesy of some clever trick shots—with a forensic walkthrough for the trial.
It’s hard to tell how rewarding the newer “Staircase” will prove over its full run; while of course it’s possible to see where the story is heading by looking up the actual facts of the case, the tension still slackens somewhat after the big trial ends. (Again, without the final three episodes, it’s hard to say whether it tightens back up again.) Then again, bringing this case to a satisfyingly tense climactic confrontation wouldn’t fit the material. This is a series that seems to admit that a lot of true crime, or at least this one, is really a no-win slow descent into a tragic morass.
“The Staircase” premieres on HBO Max on May 5 with three episodes, followed by one new episode each week through June 9.