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A Lot or a Little?
The parents' guide to what's in this TV show.
What 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.
Great start, nudity & gore ruins it for me.
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What's the Story?
Based on the 2004 true crime docuseries of the same name, THE STAIRCASE takes a long look at the death of Kathleen Peterson (Toni Collette), who died on the staircase in her home in December 2001. Her husband, Michael (Colin Firth), says a fall down the stairs caused her death. The police say Michael bludgeoned his wife to death. This series investigates the twisty story, the lengthy legal case that emerged, and how both affected the grieving members of the Peterson family.
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.
Talk to Your Kids About ...
Families can talk about true crime dramas and what part they play in our culture. Are they exploitative in general? Is it unseemly to want to watch violent dramas that are modeled after real-life events? Does this series make you feel uncomfortable about watching?
Narratives about violent crimes vary greatly in how much of the violence they show. How does this series rate on that continuum? Is there anything about the violence that's particularly disturbing? How does the realism of some of the scenarios depicted add to the horror? Is it extra frightening to see Toni Collette's face in close up when she's hurt and then after she's dead?
How much did you know about the Kathleen and Michael Peterson case before watching? How important is it to know the facts of a case going into a true crime drama? Does it detract from or add to the interest of a series?
- Premiere date: May 5, 2022
- Cast: Toni Collette, Colin Firth, Sophie Turner, Dane DeHaan, Parker Posey
- Network: HBO
- Genre: Drama
- TV rating: TV-MA
- Last updated: February 11, 2023
Our Editors Recommend
Groundbreaking true crime documentary is still compelling.
Smart, violent crime drama explores killers' psychology.
The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story
Gory, talky true-crime surprisingly riveting for grown-ups.
For kids who love true crime and drama
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