Meredith Kercher. Sister Cathy Cesnik. María Marta García Belsunce. These names may not sound familiar, but fans of true crime are probably aware that these women are at the center of a number of popular true-crime documentaries that have been uploaded to streaming services in the past few years. For those who consume the genre, it is glaringly apparent that women are often the victims of these stories, but the spotlight is usually turned to the people who were accused of killing them.
This brings us to The Staircase. This French docuseries, which was released in 2004, recounts the death of Kathleen Peterson, a mother and successful businesswoman who was found covered in blood at the bottom of her stairs by her husband, Michael Peterson. Soon after, Michael was thrown into a multi-year case, where he was tried for the murder of his wife. And over a decade later, the French miniseries was uploaded to Netflix, where three new episodes followed further developments in the case.
Now, almost twenty years after the events of Kathleen's passing, HBO Max is telling the story once again, in a fictionalized limited series based on the documentary, also titled The Staircase. And while you may be wondering why there's a need to tell this tragic tale yet again, this series is valuable in that it offers one major perspective that has never been provided in the past: Kathleen's.
The HBO Max limited series features Toni Collette as Kathleen, while Colin Firth plays Michael. In addition to these stars, Michael Stuhlbarg plays the part of Michael's lawyer, David Rudolf, while Kathleen and Michael's kids are portrayed by Sophie Turner, Odessa Young, Patrick Schwarzenegger, Dane DeHaan and Olivia DeJonge.
Besides its list of notable actors, The Staircase also boasts impressive names behind the scenes, with Antonio Campos ( The Devil All the Time , Christine ) and Maggie Cohn (American Crime Story, Narcos: Mexico) working as creators and main writers on the show.
Of course, The Staircase is just the latest in a number of true-crime stories that have been adapted for TV, and for those who already watched the Netflix docuseries, it honestly won't offer fresh information on the details of the case. However, with its fictionalized format, The Staircase allows viewers a portrait of Kathleen that we haven't seen yet.
Those who have already watched the docuseries know how the case turns out (but we won't spoil that here). On that series, the star of the show is Michael, and the majority of the 13 episodes takes place in the courtroom. As each episode ends by flashing family photos of Kathleen with her husband and kids, the viewer can't help but want to know more about the voiceless victim of this tragedy.
As a remedy to this, The Staircase sees Collette give a lively and thoughtful performance of Mrs. Peterson. While many continue to be divided on how she died, the HBO Max series takes the time to show us what she was like before her death. We see the good, the bad and the ugly—whether it's her drinking too much and hurting her neck by jumping into a pool or her driving her son to work and crying because she hits a deer. The Staircase works as a reminder that she was still human.
Perhaps the hardest part of streaming The Staircase is watching Kathleen's death happen in real time. As the series explores the different theories of how she passed, (including getting hit by a barred owl that had flown into her house, or merely slipping on the stairs) viewers are forced to watch this unravel in raw detail. It's painful and for those with queasy stomachs, these are probably moments that you'll want to skip over entirely.
Yet, if you're able to get past these disturbing scenes, The Staircase is certainly worth a watch. Yes—the series still focuses on Michael and the many mysteries and secrets that surround him (and we get a winning performance by Colin Firth too), but it provides nearly equal time to Kathleen thanks to its fictionalized format. We know that not all of these moments played out exactly as they're portrayed and the writers are taking liberties with how they present Kathleen, but it's refreshing to see them try.
PureWow Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars
For true-crime fans who already loved the French docuseries of the same name, The Staircase won't provide any groundbreaking new facts. And for those who can't handle gore, the death at the center of this show is incredibly hard to watch. However, The Staircase succeeds not only due to its stellar performances and sharp writing, but also due to the fact that it takes the time to try to understand the victim at its center, instead of merely making her a prop for a juicy story.
Currently, the first three episodes of The Staircase are available to stream on HBO Max, and a new episode will be released to the streaming service every Thursday, with the eighth and final episode premiering on June 9.
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