‘The Staircase’ Is Respectable Crime Drama At Its Addictive Best


Ever since Big Little Lies became a TV phenomenon, HBO has cleared a lane for well-heeled crime dramas that are addicting as they are ludicrous. Sharp Objects, The Undoing, Mare of Easttown: none of these could plausibly be called art, and if you took away the A-listers involved (the Nicoles, the Kates, the Amys) you might ignore them entirely. But the combination of marquee names, auteur production, and potboiler plotting has proved irresistible. Who doesn’t want a respectable crime story to watch every week?

And now comes The Staircase, which shares DNA with the above: A-list cast, interesting director (Antonio Campos, whose film Christine has echoes here), a story that wraps up privilege, legal wrangling and violent death in a handsome eight-part package. But the surprise of The Staircase is how subtle, clever and searching it is, how much better it is than the shows I would put in this lineage, not the least because of its fascinating source material. The Staircase shares a title and subject with the award-winning 2005 television documentary series by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade. That Staircase, which aired on Canal+, the BBC, and the Sundance Channel and now can be found (with its less successful sequel episodes) on Netflix, has become a kind of ur-text of the true crime boom. De Lestrade embedded with the defense team of Michael Peterson, the Durham, North Carolina, writer who was convicted of murdering his wife at the base of his home’s staircase, and his camera followed the case and all of its revelations and hypotheses in exhausting detail. The episodes were deeply bingeable, inconclusive, and controversially sympathetic to Peterson who never stopped proclaiming his innocence, all the way to prison (he was released on an Alford plea of manslaughter in 2017).

Odessa Young and Sophie Turner (at left) in The Staircase.

Photo: Courtesy of HBO Max



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