Just when you think that the true crime market is totally saturated, out come the dramatic miniseries adaptations of books and documentaries covering already popular cases. Although some, like Hulu’s The Girl from Plainfield, are so melodramatic and in such poor taste that I don’t want to spend precious column inches on them, others have taken a more meta-approach, incorporating the original true crime media into their new treatment of the subject matter, such as Hulu’s Captive Audience and HBO’s The Staircase.
HBO’s miniseries depicts the filming of the famous 2004 documentary Soupçons (or The Staircase), directed by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, and draws on an incredible cast to depict the trial of novelist and politician Michael Peterson (Colin Firth) in the death of his wife, Kathleen (Toni Collette). The controversy around the trial spawns various theories (including an owl!) and causes tension between Peterson, his late wife’s family, and their children: Martha (Odessa Young), Margaret (Sophie Turner), Caitlin (Olivia DeJonge), Todd (Patrick Schwarzenegger), and Clayton (Dane DeHaan).
Sometimes plodding and overly focused on Peterson’s sexuality, The Staircase has immense production value and performances by Firth, Colette, and Parker Posey as the prosecuting attorney. Colette is one of my favorite working actors today, but I have not totally forgiven her for Hereditary. The Staircase uses her horror movie chops for a pair of scenes that imagine alternate possibilities of what happened to Kathleen. The first, depicting her falling on the stairs, is so harrowing, that I caught myself checking the locks afterward, before realizing I should be checking the railings. For those thoroughly educated on the Peterson case, I imagine that this series does not offer much new aside from the performances, but they deliver.
Created by Antonio Campos, The Staircase is rated TV-MA and runs for eight episodes, four of which have aired as of this writing.
On FX and Hulu, Under the Banner of Heaven gives the Jon Krakauer book the prestige TV treatment. Starring Andrew Garfield as Detective Pyre and Gil Birmingham as his partner Bill Taba, the series chronicles their investigation into the murder of Brenda Lafferty (Daisy Edgar-Jones), which leads them deeper into the fundamentalist Lafferty family (featuring Taylor St. Pierre, Wyatt Russell, Sam Worthington, and Rory Culkin) and their jealousy, misogyny, and hatred of taxes.
Although sometimes sensational, Under the Banner of Heaven tells a gripping story, also with excellent performances. As Brenda, Daisy Edgar-Jones stands above a talented ensemble. She gives Brenda such intelligence and strength that she hooks the audience into the story with a strong emotional investment. Andrew Garfield also performs well and the banter between him and Gil Birmingham provides needed levity. Of all the new true crime out now, this series has me the most invested and doing more side research into issues that the writers work with to tell the story. The production pays ample attention to detail while keeping the plot moving along at a pace that maintains suspense.
Created by Dustin Lance Black, Under the Banner of Heaven is rated TV-MA and runs for seven episodes, four of which have aired as of this writing.
Finally, Hulu has tried to recreate the must-see mini-series feeling of a pre-streaming world with its limited series Candy, which dropped a new episode every night for five straight nights. Focused on the murder of Betty Gore (Melanie Lynskey) by Candy Montgomery (Jessica Biel), an alleged friend who was having an affair with her husband, Allan (Pablo Schreiber), Candy is produced for ultimate nostalgia, featuring a terrible perm, a salacious plot, and even stunt casting Justin Timberlake as a cop.
Although Jessica Biel gives a good performance as Candy, the late-1970s sets and costumes are the most memorable part of this series. The homes are so dim and dated that they emphasize how bad interior design was and how unhappy the characters are. Melanie Lynskey is a wonderful actor, but this role was so drab that it did not let her shine. Nevertheless, the decision to have Betty standing in the courtroom during the trial, watching it unfold, was a striking testament to the lack of real justice in this case. Ultimately, the vintage miniseries release of Candy and its short five-episode run help liven up a relatively bland production. Had it been released all at once or over more episodes, I do not think I would have enjoyed it as much.
Created by Robin Veith and Nick Antosca, Candy is rated TV-MA.