Is television beginning to eat itself? This is the question that, just lately, has begun to preoccupy me. I’m struck more and more by the miserable paradox that while we book-loving types often fret over the number of stories we’ve yet to read, a notional pile that grows incrementally with every week that passes, in TV-land people seem increasingly to be hell-bent on gnawing on the same old bones.
I’m not only talking about adaptations of Jane Austen. Make an English version of that beloved French series! Revisit the crazy canoe guy! Work on your long-form documentary about that famous murder even as your rival films his! Truly, they’re all at it, and I’m damned if I know why.
The Staircase is an HBO drama that, as you may already have spotted, shares its name with a 2004 French-made documentary series, directed by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, that was a hit for Netflix in an extended and updated form in 2018. Both concern the death, in 2001, of Kathleen Peterson, whose body was found by her husband, a novelist and aspiring local politician called Michael Peterson, at the foot of the stairs at their home in North Carolina; she had died after sustaining serious head injuries.
Peterson maintained that she’d fallen, but in 2003 he was convicted of her murder. In 2011, following an order for a new trial on the grounds that forensic evidence in his case was unsafe, he was bailed. However, his retrial never took place. In 2017, he entered an Alford plea (a guilty plea that allows a defendant to maintain his innocence) to the voluntary manslaughter of his wife. Thanks to the time he’d already served, he was now a free man.
The creation of the film-maker Antonio Campos (Christine, The Devil All the Time), HBO’s The Staircase stars Colin Firth as Michael Peterson, Toni Collette as Kathleen, and (a bit meta, this) Juliette Binoche as Sophie Brunet, who worked on de Lestrade’s documentary and went on to have a relationship with Peterson. But alas, flashy names or not, the show still feels to me to be utterly superfluous: a last gasp for an already quite worn out story, and one whose processes often feel so effortful, most viewers will surely hit Google long before it deigns to give them any answers.
Not that Campos is in the business of answers. His series makes a point of looking at all the possible causes of Kathleen’s death, however unlikely (the strangest theory is that she was attacked by an owl) – a scrupulousness that, while vital in documentary, is possibly incompatible with the expectations raised by eight hours of moderately histrionic drama.
None of this would matter a bit if its artistry was compelling. Unfortunately, it isn’t. In The Staircase Mark Two, highly complex events – it’s not only the forensic evidence that’s complicated: Peterson’s private life is straight out of a bad novel – are revealed in flashbacks so numerous that no momentum is ever able to build. Just as a scene starts getting interesting, we’re whipped back to a different year altogether.
By making de Lestrade a character, the director is quite rightly acknowledging his debt to the man who preceded him, who did a great deal of the legwork, who made people care about the Peterson case at all. But it does draw attention to the fact that Campos is a latecomer to this horrible, bloody jamboree.
Collette is good, playing Kathleen as a somewhat blank-eyed wife to a man who would seem to be an egomaniac and a narcissist even if he isn’t a killer, and it’s never not delightful to watch Binoche, even in a role as underwritten as this. But it’s Firth who steals the show, in ways both obvious, and not. How doughy he looks, how creepily unattractive! He has caught Peterson perfectly, I think: his cheery coercion of those close to him; his hoary, overworked, cracker-barrel indignation at everything from the small-town mores of Durham, North Carolina, to the way the district attorney’s office conducts its case.
As an ordinary man who cannot accept being ordinary, and who is sometimes moved to alter facts in order to be less so, Firth slips into his character as if into an old sweatshirt – the only problem being, of course, that de Lestrade’s documentary haunts Netflix even now, should you want to gawp at the real thing instead.
Sky Atlantic/Now TV, aired 5 May; now on catch-up
This article appears in the 04 May 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Dictating the Future