Discover more from Best Evidence
Have we soured on The Staircase?
It’s not a hot potato, so why do Sarah and I keep passing it around?
The excited buzz around HBO Max’s dramatic adaptation of The Staircase kind of took a turn once the screeners started rolling out. Remember, this is the show that played us all (us = the media, not you excellent BE subscribers) for suckers with the weekly “casting leaks” (I still remember the day — nearly a year ago! — I saw Parker Posey would be playing Freda Black) that kept the series in the headlines until it was ready for release.
But all the marketing genius in the world doesn’t make up for a product that’s either released in a time when folks are genre-fatigued, isn’t very good, or is just plain unpleasant. And when writers/critics/analysts feel like something’s been overhyped, the backlash can be pretty furious.
That sounds like I’m suggesting that all the coverage of The Staircase that’s out there is bad, and that’s not true — but a lot of people I like and respect were definitely not fans. Other folks, like Sarah and I, are finding ourselves doing pretty much anything else when we probably should be watching it. Today, I want to take a look at how other folks are covering The Staircase, and I’d love to hear from any of you who are watching it. Are you enjoying it! Are the critics right or wrong? —EB
One of the reasons I’ve been having trouble picking The Staircase up is something Richard Lawson said on last week’s Little Gold Men podcast. The conversation starts at around 14:44; he says its “really well built and really well acted, but I am having a really hard time getting through the screeners.” Part of that, Lawson says, is that early on the show contains a scene that’s “one of the most brutal five minutes of television I’ve seen, maybe ever.”
I kept thinking about that as I opened HBO Max and scrolled to the show to watch it. “Ever?” I’d think. I read Lawson’s reviews, it’s not like he only watches My Pretty Pony. If he says something is brutal, he means it. He goes into greater detail in his Vanity Fair review:
We watch as the actor playing Kathleen, Toni Collette, heads back inside the house after a night of gentle carousing with Michael (Colin Firth) by the pool. She puts her wine glass on the kitchen counter, considers checking her email before bed but changes her mind, and begins making her way up the back stairs of her stately mansion. Suddenly, her flip-flop catches, she slips, and is tossed back against the wall, badly hitting her head, a halo of blood swiftly seeping out. She struggles to get up. She tries to call for help. Eventually, she dies.
The awful scene in the stairway—which is re-created again in a later episode, only as a murder this time—is the most bold, and critical, interrogation of our interest in such things. “Is this what you wanted to see?” Campos seems to ask as Collette thrashes and moans in horrifyingly convincing fashion. There’s a tinge of Michael Haneke’s two Funny Games films in that question, a demand that the audience confront what the violence they are craving actually might look like in the unstylish, unedited, un-dramatically motivated real world. Campos does not take it easy on those viewers, nor on himself, in staging this event with such unblinking clarity.
By the end of the review, it seems like The Staircase, well made as it is, is enough to make Lawson hope it somehow kills off true crime as a genre. I’m not even kidding, his kicker is “Campos has made the true-crime series to end them all. One hopes, anyway.”
Hollywood Reporter critic Daniel Fienberg is definitely on team genre fatigue. This isn’t even me reading between the lines: at the top of his review of the series, he says “if you’re getting a little fatigued with these shows, in which too frequently nothing is added other than Emmy-hungry actors playing dress-up, you’re not alone.”
You’re set for a savaging, right? But then, like Lawson, he praises the bones and mechanics of the series, though “there’s an exhaustion that comes from the steady crawl of grief.” Again, there’s applause for it as an accomplishment, but no joy, no jouissance. Maybe there shouldn’t be — this is, after all, a story about a death and either a murder or a life-shattering false accusation (you decide!), maybe either component would be out of place. But it makes me wonder if, especially now, I need to let this into my life.
Do we, as either genre fans or as people who care about content, need to watch something just because it is good? Maybe not. Still thinking about it.
So I turned to the step and repeat at the The Staircase premiere. I’m a sucker for horrible canned red-carpet interviews; I’ve done some myself (on the reporter side, obvi) and there’s no way to make them not awkward. It appears, based on the video above, that Patrick Schwarzenegger does not know the meaning of the word “bankroll,” and that Colin Firth just wore his glasses from home in the Kingsmen movies. But it didn’t move my needle in the “must watch direction.”
Variety was also on a red Staircase carpet, apparently for the premiere party at the Museum of Modern Art. This was two days after the Met Gala, so The Staircase’s cast wasn’t close to the most glamorous folks at the museum last week. And if Posey’s statements are to be believed, it seems like some of the more repugnant elements of the show are…intentional?
“I think about Truman Capote and ‘In Cold Blood,’ which was itself a first of its kind,” Parker Posey, who plays the prosecuting attorney Freda Black in the series, told Variety at the premiere. “There used to be a boundary with telling stories about crime and those affected by it, but now we want to know what makes them tick.”
“If you think about court cases at that time — the Menendez brothers, O.J. Simpson — court television became a new form of storytelling,” she continued. “And if we’re going to ask when crime becomes entertainment, it starts the second it’s on television.”
Also, an odd note from Variety: “Michael Peterson was not at the premiere on Tuesday evening.” I mean, wouldn’t it be super-weird if he was, for like 50 different reasons? Was there anyone who expected any members of the family to attend?
Critic Nick Allen agrees with Lawson’s praise, but his conclusion is quite different. Where the VF critic hoped that The Staircase would spell the end of true crime, Allen, writing for Roger Ebert.com, says it’s “the jolt that the true crime storytelling industry needs.” He also wrote what might be my favorite sentence about Firth’s portrayal of Peterson:
Firth takes his usually congenial, calm screen presence and shows us its flip side, that of being indignant, slippery and clumsy, like if a Eugene Levy character in a Christopher Guest movie were accused of first-degree murder.
Makes this hit a little differently.
Writing for Polygon, Katie Rife is. Not. Having. It. The jig is up in the headline: HBO’s The Staircase shows the limits of the True-Crime Industrial Complex. She, too, offers dutiful praise for its mechanics, while expressing discomfort with it as an overall property. A snip:
The typical line for true-crime projects trying to sidestep accusations of exploitation is that it’s about “honoring the victims,” or at least exploring their psychology. Series creator Antonio Campos’ 2016 film Christine accomplished this admirably, dramatizing the troubled emotions and thwarted ambitions that led to Florida news anchor Christine Chubbuck’s on-air death in 1974. The same can’t really be said for the five episodes of The Staircase made available for review: Sure, you’ve got Toni Collette as Kathleen, building on her fearless reputation with dinner-table scenes that can’t help but evoke her famous “I am your mother!” monologue from Hereditary. But in terms of illuminating what made either Peterson tick, Campos’ version of The Staircase is no more forthcoming than Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s original.
The fictionalized Staircase is more about the meta-narrative surrounding the case than the case itself (or, by extension, the people involved). Campos’ version of the story has secured a fantastic, high-profile cast that also features Colin Firth as Michael Peterson, as well as Juliette Binoche, Michael Stuhlbarg, Rosemarie DeWitt, Sophie Turner, and Parker Posey in supporting roles. But early on in this eight-episode series, the casting gives The Staircase the air of a prestige reenactment. Combined with the extensive use of a bloodied, battered dummy, as well as disturbing, graphic re-creations that see Collette dying in extreme distress again and again, it sets a ghoulish tone that preempts any paeans to post-mortem dignity.
If you’re not sensing a theme by now, I am not doing my job very well! But, I assure you, I am not cherry-picking takes. Here are a few more that would have been redundant to recap:
I’m going to end with Alison Herman’s piece on The Staircase for The Ringer, which focuses less on the stuff of performance or production, and a bit more on the part about how we already know how this show ends, which is something I hadn’t really thought about until this moment.
But, of course, it is true: This isn’t Westworld or Moon Night, where fans can theorize and speculate and be proven right or wrong by the end of the run — this is a story where we will not get a clear concrete ending, not really. Not to the real life case (because it is still unresolved unless you believe Kathleen Peterson fell), not for the fictional case (because these are real people with lawyers being portrayed).
As we noted in March, there’s growing frustration with documentary properties that promise an investigative journey and end without resolution. But that lack of resolution is understandable, as real life rarely wraps up easily. But when it comes to fiction, especially marquee name fiction, we expect even more of an ending…and it’s hard to imagine that when The Staircase ends, it’ll give us that.
What I’m getting from all this is that The Staircase is a high quality glossy show with all the right moves, but that it’s not much fun, might actually be painful to watch, and can’t possibly end in a satisfying fashion. As we so frequently say, our job here is to highlight the true crime that’s worth your time. After reading all these takes, I think The Staircase might very well be worth one’s time! But right now, given the other daily brutalities and frustrations we’re all grappling with, I don’t know if it’s how I want to spend my time. Not quite the same thing! But that is where I am. How about you?
Later this week on Best Evidence: Opioids, Tyler Perry, and Mario Batali.