HBO Max's new true crime show has 90% on Rotten Tomatoes

The HBO Max logo on a phone on top of a keyboard
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The peak true crime era isn't letting up anytime soon. HBO Max has a new true crime drama based on a celebrated docuseries, The Staircase. The fictional version seems like it will receive just as much acclaim, already notching 90 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and making our list of what to watch in May.

The Staircase is based on the 2004 documentary miniseries of the same name created by French filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade. It chronicled the trial of Michael Peterson on the charge of murdering his wife, Kathleen Peterson. The film crew had unprecedented, intimate access to Peterson, his family, his attorneys and the courtroom proceedings. 

The drama stars Colin Firth as Peterson, Toni Collette as Kathleen, Michael Stuhlbarg as defense attorney David Rudolf and Vincent Vermignon as Lestrade. The eight-episode limited series examines how storytelling affects subjectivity and whether the truth of a case can ever be known with complete certainty. If you haven't jumped on the HBO Max bandwagon yet, this may be the perfect time.

Already started The Staircase? We've got another recommendation with the one show you should binge-watch now (that has a 91% on Rotten Tomatoes).

What to know about the Michael Peterson case

Michael Peterson was a novelist living in Durham, North Carolina with wife Kathleen Atwater and their five children — Kathleen's daughter Caitlin, Peterson's sons Clayton and Todd from his first marriage, and Peterson's wards Margaret and Martha (daughters of his friends George and Elizabeth Ratliff). 

In December 2002, Peterson called 911 to report that Kathleen had died after falling down the stairs in their home. The police did not believe his story; instead, they concluded he had bludgeoned her to death with a missing fireplace tool. Peterson was charged with murder and a team of attorneys, led by David Rudolf, represented him in court.

So far, The Staircase is a good series about a great documentary, but it has the potential to become very good in the home stretch.

The Hollywood Reporter's Daniel Fienberg

During the trial, it came out that when Peterson and his first wife Patricia lived in Germany, he was connected to another death by staircase. Their friend, Elizabeth Ratliff (then a widow), fell down the stairs after suffering an intra-cerebral haemorrhage. Her head injuries were eerily similar to the ones sustained by Kathleen. The German police and U.S. military investigated the matter and deemed Ratliff's death accidental. 

However, the prosecution claimed that the first death inspired Peterson to fake Kathleen's staircase fall. They posited the story Kathleen discovered Michael was bisexual and having affairs with men. As a result, they argued and he bludgeoned her to death, the tried to cover it up. 

Colin Firth and the cast of The Staircase

(Image credit: HBO Max)

Peterson claimed that Kathleen did not know about his sexuality and even if she did, would have accepted it. He stuck to his alibi of being outside by their backyard pool when Kathleen fell. 

After one of the longest trials in North Carolina history, the jury ultimately convicted Peterson in October 2003. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Multiple attempts at an appeal failed. 

The owl theory and new trial

In 2009, Durham attorney T. Lawrence Pollard advanced a new theory about Kathleen's death — that it was caused by an owl attack. He pointed to the evidence list compiled by he North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation (SBI), which included a microscopic owl feather and a wooden sliver found in a clump of hair in Kathleen's hand. A new examination of the hair found two more microscopic owl feathers.

Prosecutors ridiculed the claim, and the coroner who conducted Kathleen's autopsy, says it was unlikely that an owl or any other bird made such deep wounds on her scalp. Peterson did not move forward with a motion for a new trial based on the owl theory. 

For all its careful recreation and staging, what makes The Staircase the most compelling edition of itself lies in its performances.

Collider's Carly Lane

However, he did end up getting a retrial because of 2010 reports about shoddy work done by the SBI. They resulted in the eventual firing of SBI analyst Duane Deaver, one of the main witnesses against Peterson. Deaver had testified to having expertise in bloodstain analysis that he did not actually have.

In December 2011, Peterson was released from prison on bail to live under house arrest. The court ordered a new trial. It was scheduled to begin in May 2017, but it didn't go forward as his attorney made a deal with the prosecutor. In February 2017, Peterson entered an Alford plea, which means the defendant asserts innocence but pleads guilty because there's  sufficient evidence for a conviction. 

He was sentenced to a maximum of 86 months in prison. But with credit for time previously serviced, Peterson remained free. 

Following the resolution of his case, Peterson wrote two books about the trial and his experience, Behind the Staircase and Beyond the Staircase. He is believed to still live in Durham — in a ground-floor apartment with no stairs.

Where to watch the Staircase docuseries

David Rudolf and Michael Peterson in The Staircase documentary

(Image credit: Netflix)

French filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade had extensive access to Peterson, his family and his attorneys. In 2004, the eight-episode miniseries was previewed on ABC's Primetime Thursday and aired in its entirety on the Sundance Channel  BBC Four's Storyville in the UK.

In 2012, Lestrade released a two-hour follow-up which premiered at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) and aired on the Sundance Channel. 

In 2015, the filmmaker announced another follow-up film, The Staircase III. Netflix bought it and released it as three new episodes. The streaming service also got the rights to the previous episodes. 

All 13 episodes of The Staircase are available now on Netflix.

The Staircase reviews

While The Staircase (2022) hasn't reached a critical consensus (waiting on more reviews) on Rotten Tomatoes yet, the reviews so far are very positive. 

After viewing five episodes, The Hollywood Reporter's Daniel Fienberg writes, "So far, The Staircase is a good series about a great documentary, but it has the potential to become very good in the home stretch."

Ben Travers of Indiewire says, "The slick structure, winking commentary on true-crime culture, and a killer performance from Colin Firth, among others, make “The Staircase” a gripping and nimble successor" to the documentary.

Collider's Carly Lane writes, "For all its careful recreation and staging, what makes The Staircase the most compelling edition of itself lies in its performances." Lane 

Chris Evangelista at SlashFilm also calls out the performances, noting, "Firth in particular does a great job of making Michael seem like an enigma, while also nailing the real Peterson's distinct way of speaking."

TheWrap's Jesse Hassenger says, "The best moments evoke the queasy fascination of a good (or at least entertaining) true-crime doc, built around a strong performance from Firth."

Plus, check out the new movies to stream this week. And in other TV news, the Obi-Wan Kenobi trailer is finally here, and it's teasing the grudge-match of the year. Also, it's almost time to watch Tehran season 2 online and see if Apple's espionage show gets better with the addition of Glenn Close. Meanwhile, Peacock has canceled its Saved by the Bell reboot after two seasons. 

Kelly Woo
Streaming Editor

Kelly is the streaming channel editor for Tom’s Guide, so basically, she watches TV for a living. Previously, she was a freelance entertainment writer for Yahoo, Vulture, TV Guide and other outlets. When she’s not watching TV and movies for work, she’s watching them for fun, seeing live music, writing songs, knitting and gardening.