TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. In the new HBO Max series "The Staircase," Colin Firth stars as a man accused of murdering his wife. The series dramatizes a true crime story that was previously the subject of an acclaimed documentary series. The first three episodes of the new series drops Thursday. Our critic at large, John Powers, says it tells a story that just keeps on being fascinating.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: Back when TV was in black and white, there was a cop show called "Dragnet," whose hero, Sergeant Joe Friday, was famous for telling witnesses just the facts, ma'am. Using the facts he got, he then caught the perp. In real life, of course, things are not so neat. It's often hard to know what just the facts are, let alone what they mean. Consider the story of Michael Peterson, a Durham, N.C., writer whose wife Kathleen was found dead at the bottom of their staircase in their house in 2001. He said she fell; the authorities said he killed her; the evidence was ambiguous. Three years later, French filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade turned the case into an acclaimed documentary series, "The Staircase," that would set the template for countless true crime stories to follow. Imagine "Dateline" if it was exciting, not hokey. Peterson's saga has now been dramatized in a moody HBO Max series also titled "The Staircase."
Created by Antonio Campos and boasting a crack cast led by Colin Firth and Juliette Binoche, this new version starts with the stuff from the original series and then expands outwards. Hopscotching to and fro over a 16-year period, Campos seeks to reveal truths and capture emotions left out of the earlier series. Firth plays Michael Peterson, a man with an apparently idyllic family life. He has a loving marriage to Kathleen - that's Toni Collette - and happy relationships with their two sons and three daughters. On December 9, 2001, he calls 911 and tells them that his wife is lying collapsed on the stairs. By the time help arrives, she's dead. Although he explains that Kathleen fell while drinking and hit her head, the DA's office is convinced that Michael murdered her with an implement - in part, it seems, because they disapprove of what they learn about his sex life.
From here, things snowball. Not only does the investigation produce startling twist after twist, but the Peterson family starts splintering in all sorts of ways. And in a fresh narrative strand, Campos includes the story of the French filmmakers turning up in Durham, telling Peterson that they want to use his story as an example of American justice. Perhaps vaingloriously, he agrees. His lawyer, niftily played by Michael Stuhlbarg, is more cautious. Here at their first meeting, he lays out Peterson's situation with steely clarity.
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MICHAEL STUHLBARG: (As David Rudolf) Look; God willing, we won't need any help. But sometimes good people get dragged into situations that turn out bad.
COLIN FIRTH: (As Michael Peterson) OK. So how much is it going to cost?
STUHLBARG: (As David) A case like this, you're going to need jury consultants, blood analysts - between 4- and 500 K.
FIRTH: (As Michael) Half-a-million bucks. I've got five kids to worry about, three still in college.
STUHLBARG: (As David) Good defense isn't cheap.
FIRTH: (As Michael) I shouldn't need a defense. I shouldn't even be here.
STUHLBARG: (As David) Does Kathleen have life insurance, savings?
FIRTH: (As Michael) Yes.
STUHLBARG: (As David) So? When it comes to staying out of prison, anything is up for grabs.
POWERS: Now, "The Staircase" is very skillfully turned. Campos directs with more visual panache than usual for TV, and he wins lots of nifty performances, including those of Parker Posey, who captures the scornfully amused righteousness of prosecutor Freda Black, and Collette, who endows the dead Kathleen with a vivid living presence. The whole show revolves around Firth, who hasn't been this good since the film "A Single Man." Losing himself in Peterson, who's sort of a tainted Mr. Darcy, he does a spectacular job of conjuring up a man who's charismatic, erudite, slippery and entitled. He's sure the justice system will be on his side - big mistake. In fact, both versions of "The Staircase" detail the workings of a justice system filled with pricey lawyers, ambitious district attorneys, bickering experts and appeals to a jury's cultural biases that may have nothing to do with the evidence or even the case at hand. By making the French film team part of the action, we see them urging Peterson to show more emotion on camera. Campos accentuates the idea that it's narrative, not truth, that matters. What is justice, asks Lestrade's film editor, played by Binoche - two sides competing to tell a better story.
When it comes to telling a better story, this dramatized "Staircase" can't match the addictively fizzy energy of the original documentary, which you can watch on Netflix. Where the French film enthralls us with shocks and surprises - it's clearly riveted by the showbiz strangeness of high-profile American trials - Campos wants to explore something less fun, the painful human reality of the Peterson case. He leads us into the murk, both emotionally and intellectually, which brings us back to facts. It's one measure of their ultimate unknowability in the Peterson case that, through the five preview episodes anyway, Campos doesn't tell us whether Michael Peterson actually murdered Kathleen. Rather than attempt to solve the mystery, he wants us to feel the weight of her death and what happens to everyone in its wake. He clearly agrees with the words of the French producer - innocent or guilty, the Peterson ending will always be tragic.
GROSS: John Powers reviewed the new drama series "The Staircase," which begins on HBO Max tomorrow.
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about how many Russian oligarchs hide, launder and protect their money in Britain and how that's helped Russia afford its war in Ukraine. My guest will be British journalist Oliver Bullough, who has spent years investigating how kleptocrats hide their ill-gotten gains. He's about to publish his second book on the subject. I hope you'll join us.
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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF RAY ANDERSON'S "MONA LISA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.