A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this TV show.
This series is built around a terrible family murder, so the only messages are cautionary ones, such as "take care who you trust."
Positive Role Models
We get to know all the members of the Peterson extended family in this drama, who emerge as realistic people with flaws. Kathleen herself seems like a fully fleshed out person, which is rare in true crime dramas. Her husband is ultimately a slippery and duplicitous person (who this drama seems to regard as guilty).
Most of the characters are White and upper middle class. There are some side characters who are people of color, but we don't spend much time getting to know them, they're in the story in the service of a death and subsequent investigation. A female prosecutor has an unusually powerful role (women are often relegated to minor roles or to defense in criminal cases).
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Violence & Scariness
A tragic death is at the center of this drama. The series begins on the night of Kathleen's death and we hear a 911 call with an upset family member and see an unmoving body at length with a bloody head wound and blood in splotches all over her body as law enforcement officers investigate her death. We also see her nude body being examined by a medical examiner and hear graphic descriptions of her injuries, including tests for sexual assault. Later, other possible versions of the death are visualized, including a very graphic scene in which Kathleen falls and slips in her own blood and is unable to get up to save herself.
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Sex, Romance & Nudity
Non-sexual nudity in a scene in which a nude dead body is examined at length by a medical examiner; breasts are visible. A secret sexual life plays a part in this case; we see a (presumably used) condom and hear about extramarital assignations. We see images of fully naked men with erect penises visible from sexually oriented material in the Peterson criminal case.
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Cursing includes "f--k," "f--ker," "s--t," "motherf--ker," "ass," "goddamn." Additional language includes "sucked" ("That toast sucked") and "prick."
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Products & Purchases
The Peterson family is wealthy and the trappings are highly visible: fancy cars, a huge and elegant house, children whose college is paid for, no questions asked.
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking
Alcohol and Valium both play a part in Kathleen Peterson's death; we understand that both Kathleen and Michael were drinking before her death, and son Todd says Kathleen was "s--tfaced" when she died. Characters drink at gatherings, such as one scene in which a recent graduate is toasted with sparkling wine, and one in which a character guzzles glass after glass of wine at a party and then slurs her words and is obnoxious. Michael smokes a pipe.
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Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that The Staircase is based on the 2004 true crime docuseries of the same name and involves the death of Kathleen Peterson and the criminal case against her husband, Michael Peterson. As viewers might expect in a series about a gruesome murder, violence and death is at the center of the story. We see Kathleen's death depicted several times, including a scene in which she's hit by Michael with a weapon and a graphic and realistic scene in which she falls down the stairs and slips in her own blood. We see her dead body at length, as well as her nude body in a medical examiner's autopsy in which breasts are visible; male full-frontal nudity is visible in images from sexual materials. Family members grieve throughout the series. Alcohol and Valium played a part in Kathleen's death; we see many scenes in which characters drink heavily and get sloppy and emotional. Michael Peterson smokes a pipe in some scenes. A secret sexual life also played a part in this case; we hear details about extramarital same-sex assignations and see a condom held up as part of a criminal investigation. Language is frequent: "f--k," "f--king," "s--t," "goddamn," "ass," and more.
Is It Any Good?
Startling and compelling, this true crime miniseries wrings new juice from a well-worn criminal case with deft and involving characterizations from a powerhouse cast. Make no mistake, The Staircase's deck is stacked: Not only are Toni Collette and Colin Firth given big, meaty, fleshed-out parts to illuminate, all the actors in this drama are making a meal out of even small parts and bringing them to vivid life. They have plenty to work with, too; in the hands of writer Maggie Cohn (American Crime Story) and showrunner Antonio Campos (The Devil All the Time), the members of the Peterson family emerge as fully realized characters, including Kathleen, which is rare in a media milieu in which the lives of female victims are often condensed to a few scenes in order to focus more fully on the horrible details of their deaths.
Instead, we see Kathleen at work, at home, with her family; she's imperfect and drinks too much and is sometimes cranky with her longtime husband and family members, but she also feels real, which makes the crime (or was it an accident?) all the more horrible to witness. Part of The Staircase's intrigue is that it walks through each possibility in the case -- Kathleen fell to her death, Michael bludgeoned her, she was attacked by predatory wildlife, and so on. It's fascinating to see the new light each version casts on facts, yet particularly the scenes that depict Kathleen accidentally falling are devastating. Bloody, disoriented, inebriated, she slips, falls, and then simply can't get up to save herself as she bleeds to death. It's a death that feels so real and relatable, viewers may find themselves wanting to hold onto their own bannisters extra-tight.
Did we miss something on diversity?
Research shows a connection between kids' healthy self-esteem and positive portrayals in media. That's why we've added a new "Diverse Representations" section to our reviews that will be rolling out on an ongoing basis. You can help us help kids by suggesting a diversity update.