Why, in 2022, is the story of Michael Peterson supposed to be interesting?
If you’re unfamiliar, Peterson was a writer who may or may not have murdered his wife Kathleen in Durham, NC in 2001 by bludgeoning her with some object, possibly strangling her, and throwing her down the stairs after she died. He was convicted at trial and served eight years in prison before a judge granted him a new trial, and in 2017 he took an Alford plea and no longer faced any threat of serving further jail time.
There are a few ways to answer the question of why it might still be interesting now. First, you might say the crime itself is fascinating/titillating/whatever. Second, you could point to his fame. Third, the possibility that he murdered his wife because she discovered his bisexuality. Fourth, and I think most likely, is the existence of the Peabody Award-winning 2004 documentary The Staircase, which had intimate access to Peterson and the trial proceedings, and was an influential work when it was released.
As to the first three points, while they may have been vaguely true at the time, they’re a tough sell now. The crime itself is not novel; unfortunately, spousal killings are distressingly common, they happen by the thousands each year, and that alone isn’t enough to distinguish the Peterson case as exceptional more than 20 years later. Fame is a misdirection; Peterson wasn’t very famous even after 2001. I lived in Durham, NC at that time, and though I was a self-absorbed college student, I do think it’s notable that I don’t have a single memory of hearing Michael Peterson’s name between 2001 and 2003. As a writer, he wasn’t anything close to a household name, and the truly “famous” part of his life came after the release of The Staircase. Finally, the sexuality angle: Peterson was having affairs with other men, and Kathleen may have found out, and this may have led to a murder, but none of this is conclusive; and frankly, while it may have raised eyebrows in 2001, mores have changed even in the 20 years since, and it’s no longer a dynamic that will shock and compel a modern audience, if it ever was.
Which brings us back to the documentary. The reason it worked had a lot to do with access, a lot to do with the talent of filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, and even more to do with the fact that these were real people going through a real situation. Antonio Campos and Maggie Cohn’s task with dramatizing this event for HBO’s The Staircase (starring Colin Firth as Peterson and Toni Collette as Kathleen) was to recapture this immediacy after two decades and with a layer of fiction standing between the crime and the televised product.
Are there examples where that feat was pulled off successfully? In fact, yes, and we don’t have to look far. In The People vs. O.J Simpson, FX absolutely nailed it, but they had certain factors in their favor. For one thing, O.J. Simpson was legitimately famous, and they could trade on the fact that the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson really did captivate America. For another, strange as this is to say, they combined the urgent storytelling with a sense of humor which captured the absurdity of the entire spectacle, and what it said about the new celebrity-saturated era that it helped usher in. You couldn’t look away.
The Staircase, I’m sorry to report, has none of this. Firth and Collette are “good,” I guess, and so is the rest of the cast, from Michael Stuhlbarg as the defense attorney David Rudolf to Sophie Turner as Margaret Ratliff, but there is just nothing here to draw interest, much less sustain it, and good actors with no material are like jugglers having to pantomime the balls. Impressive, but only for about 10 seconds.
In two words, this is dull fare. The first episode treats the crime itself as worthy of fascination all on its own, and moves at a snail’s pace, confident that each small moment will captivate. The People vs. O.J. Simpson did this too, but again we go back to those three elements: Novelty, fame, sexuality. None of them pique anywhere near enough interest in the Peterson case, not anymore, and what we’re left with is a crime story about people who might as well be totally fictionalized.
The problem is, in a good fictional crime story, the writers and directors feel a sense of responsibility to make you care. Here, there’s an underlying assumption that we’ll care, and that assumption leads to plodding, stultifying drama. The Peterson case of real life is used as a crutch, and the crutch is broken. From pacing to plot, this is a show that is forever collapsing on itself.
And it’s so, so serious. The funniest moments are entirely unintentional—Kathleen hurting her neck by jumping in a pool for no reason, then waking up in a hospital bed to find Michael staring at a television screen where the 9/11 attacks are happening, and intoning, “this is going to be really bad.” Ah, yes!, the viewer says. We are in 2001! Or one of the daughters singing the pop standard “You Always Hurt the One You Love” in bed one night to make the point that maybe Michael Peterson killed his wife. (I feel obliged on this point to assure you that no, I’m not joking.)
This is the kind of show that makes you wonder if we’re nearing the end of the true crime era; the beats have become so predictable, and the artistic effort behind it so minimal, we’re running on murderous fumes. That’s probably melodramatic, but The Staircase tries to stand on the shoulders of the gigantic documentary that preceded it, and teeters from the very first moment, to the point that its very existence feels cynical. If you’re going to mine old tragedies for current entertainment, which is exactly what’s happening here, cut the self-serious pretense, dispense with the notion that we’re going to be emotionally affected by any of this, and take a page from The People vs. O.J. Simpson. In short, own up to the emotional buttons you’re trying to press, and have fun.
The Staircase premieres Friday, May 5th on HBO, streaming the next day on HBO Max.
Shane Ryan is a writer and editor. You can find more of his writing and podcasting at Apocalypse Sports, and follow him on Twitter here .
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