HBO Max keeps pumping out murder mysteries, some based on true events, and some others complete fiction, but the genre has served well to the platform when it comes to audiences. Both The Undoing, and boasted good numbers and Mare was even recognized constantly during awards season. HBO Max will try to have another success in the genre with Staircase, based on real life events.
To make this new series as appetizing as possible, HBO has hired a great number of recognizable actors, and has also managed to put a well regarded and talented director behind the cameras. Doing this gives the miniseries the necessary consistency to make this new show feel like a long movie. One movie that everybody will need to mark on the calendars for the next number of weeks to see the end of it and discover the truth.
This isn’t the first time The Staircase finds its way to our TV screens. Netflix already has a documentary series following the case and its developments on their platform. It becomes a fascinating experiment to compare both of them and see how different mediums, directors, and writers approach the material differently. So, if you like this HBO version, then you might want to go back and watch the Netflix docuseries and compare them.
But what is the Staircase? The story follows crime novelist Michael Peterson, as he gets accused of his wife’s death, when she is discovered in their home, dead at the bottom of a staircase. Did he do it? Was it just an accident? This is what the show bets on catching the audience, the intrigue, and human curiosity in general, and for the most part the show succeeds in making each new episode interesting enough to keep you going.
Sadly, The Staircase is not bingeable, so far there are only three episodes available, but if it was, it would surely be the pillow talk for this week all over the internet.
The miniseries boasts a number of great recognizable actors in major roles. Colin Firth, plays Michael Peterson, while Toni Collette plays his late wife Kathleen. Both actors are always a welcome presence on screen, and here it is no different. Alongside Firth, and Collette we have also a great group of actors in the supporting roles. Michael Stulhbarg, Dane DeHaan, Odessa Young, Sophie Turner, and even the great Juliette Binoche make appearances.
The miniseries also offer great examples of visual flair thanks to the cinematography of Lyle Vincent. Vincent has already done some great work for HBO with the TV movie Bad Education, and in other films such as the excellent Thoroughbreds, and A Girl Walks Alone At Night. The visual palette really informs the web of lies that covers the Peterson family, and it also does some great, impressive work at the moments when the revelations come and hit the characters right in their faces.
Of course, this is also the result of very solid direction by Antonio Campos. Campos has been somewhat irregular when it comes to his film work. Christine, his 2016 film could be considered a modern classic, while his work in The Devil All The Time, feels too overly serious and scattered when it comes to delivering a proper narrative. Campo’s work in The Staircase feels like right in the middle of the previously mentioned works. And that works well for a series that needs to grab you and make you invested in the characters, but also needs to distract you.
The distractions are all very well done. They make the revelations feel more important, and impactful. Each new episode brings something new, a development, or new clues to the table and the case becomes clearer as we move on. If the show manages to maintain this pace when it comes to the narrative progression, it is possible that the miniseries can stand on its own as a great piece of entertainment.
There are a couple of issues though. One in particular is the over reliance on flashbacks as a narrative device. The Untold, one of HBO’s previous murder mysteries also used tons of flashbacks to explain the case and give us a glimpse into what was happening inside the characters heads. Flashbacks are an easy way to convey information in a visual form, however, The Untold flashbacks also managed to cloud the storytelling and even contradict everything that was put on screen when the ending came.
This is not to say that The Staircase will suffer the same fate, but it should be careful of not falling into those pitfalls. There is also the fact that, as we said before, flashbacks are an easy way to convey background information. When too many stories start doing then it becomes familiar and familiarity is the gateway to boredom. Maybe in their next output, HBO should think in a new and exciting way to tell the story. Sometimes, it feels like I have already seen the Staircase before. It doesn’t feel right.
Overall, The Staircase is quite entertaining. It manages to create interesting characters that will keep you guessing at every step of the way, and will intrigue you enough that you will need to see each episode every week, until the end comes. Yes, it might look and feel very similar to other HBO miniseries that fall into the same genre, but so far the formula is still welcome in our screens.