2022 is shaping up to be a year of true crime on television, except unlike our old obsession with documentaries, now it’s the fiction adaptations shooting to number one on the streaming charts. We started with scammer stories like Inventing Anna and WeCrashed, but now it seems we’ve taken a darker turn, with The Girl From Plainville and now The Staircase taking real-life murder cases and giving them the Hollywood treatment.

I wrote previously in my review of The Girl From Plainville about how difficult it is to make a courtroom drama, well, dramatic. I feel confident that The Staircase is going to manage the balance though in a way I never felt The Girl From Plainville did — but maybe that’s because, unlike the Michelle Carter case, I managed to miraculously remain in the dark about the trial of Michael Peterson. 

This is pretty strange, to be honest — the documentary miniseries The Staircase, which first aired in 2004, is considered to be one of the best true crime docos in existence. Following Michael Peterson through his murder trial, the miniseries has all the twists and turns of a fictional thriller, which is what drew the filmmakers to the story in the first place.

The Staircase is based on the real-life trial of Michael Peterson for the murder of his wife, Kathleen. Image: HBO

Without spoiling the 2022 adaptation (maybe you managed to stay in the dark about the case, like me), Michael Peterson was charged with the murder of his wife, Kathleen Peterson, on December 9, 2001. Michael had called 911, claiming that Kathleen had fallen down the stairs in their home and wasn’t breathing. However, once the police arrived on the scene, a crime scene was established as detectives found evidence to suggest Michael’s story may not have been entirely factual. 

This setup is handled brilliantly in the series’ first episode. Jumping between 2017, the aftermath of Kathleen’s murder in December 2001, and the months prior to her death the same year, we are given just enough insight into the Peterson family to keep the plot moving forward, but not enough to make us feel we have all the information at hand to judge Michael’s guilt. A blended family, the Peterson’s seem loving and loyal to one another, which makes the death of Kathleen seem very much like an accident — but as the episode continues, we start to doubt that. 

Colin Firth is, of course, pitch-perfect as Michael Peterson, giving the patriarch a cryptic darkness — is he a loving father and husband? A lying, insecure man drunk on ambition? Is his grief legitimate or a ruse? We are kept guessing as Firth plays it right on the edge, never too melodramatic, but with enough control to make us wonder what Michael is really thinking as the case unfolds. Toni Collette also holds her own, as expected, playing Kathleen Peterson in flashbacks. She has less to work with, but without giving anything away, that will definitely change later in the series.

Firth and Collette are, as we expected, pitch-perfect as Michael and Kathleen Peterson. Image: Netflix.

It’s the slow drip of information through the first episode that left me confident that The Staircase will succeed where The Girl From Plainville did not. But that’s not a fault in scriptwriting, in my opinion — The Staircase is just working with a better story for fictional adaptation. The Kathleen Peterson case was genuinely filled with mystery — simply put, it was far muddier than the Conrad Roy case, which was more about holding Michelle Carter to account for her role in his suicide. This in turn made The Girl From Plainville more of a character study than a mystery series, and while Elle Fanning did a fantastic job of portraying Michelle, the heaviness of that crime story didn’t have the accompanying ‘whodunit’ factor to get you through. In short, at a time where the news is harrowing every day, do we really want to sit through a horror criminal trial where we already know what happened?

I do wonder if The Staircase is as engaging for those viewers who know all about the case’s twists and turns, though. I was gripped because I genuinely had no idea where the story was going, but if I knew about the shock reveals that eventually unfolded during the investigation and subsequent trial, would I have enjoyed these first few episodes as much? Possibly not — unlike Inventing Anna, the Kathleen Peterson case was so widely covered both in real time and by not just the documentary miniseries, but countless true crime podcasts and television shows over the years that most people with a crime interest are well across all the theories and evidence. The reason Inventing Anna worked so well was because the case wasn’t as picked apart. Most of us knew of Anna Delvey and had read the famous New York Times article, but there was room to explore parts of Anna’s life we hadn’t been privy to. What was mysterious to me in The Staircase would have been basic groundwork for someone familiar with the case, and I can’t see the courtroom drama turn we’re about to take being as gripping if you know what’s going to occur.

Without the mystery, will those who know the Peterson case inside-out enjoy the adaptation? Image: Netflix.

That being said, this is still a series working with a real-life story that did twist and turn in ways most criminal cases don’t, and features a cast of strong character actors. There is plenty here to keep us watching, I believe.