Since 2001, the stranger-than-fiction events that inspired the new HBO Max series The Staircase have captivated audiences—even those who aren’t true crime superfans. That year, news emerged of a writer named Michael Peterson whose wife, Kathleen Peterson, had mysteriously died in their North Carolina home. At the time, Michael told police he’d discovered Kathleen unconscious after she’d fallen down the stairs, but the physical evidence told a different story, and he was charged and convicted in 2003. Scores of conspiracy theories that aimed to give explanations for what happened followed, including one that identified a barn owl as the murderer. While Peterson’s first trial was underway, prosecutors also discovered that he was likely gay or bisexual, and may have been having an affair with another man. Additionally, they alleged he’d murdered their close family friend, Elizabeth Ratliff, in 1985. Ratliff, it turns out, was also found dead at the bottom of a staircase.
If this seems like a plot ripe for the movies, you’re not the only one who thinks so: in 2005, the French director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade produced an English-language documentary miniseries that led to a sequel in 2013 and three more installments Netflix commissioned in 2018.
Then came news of HBO’s drama adaptation in 2021, starring nearly every heavy hitter in Hollywood (and beyond): Toni Collette as Kathleen, Colin Firth as Michael, Sophie Turner as their daughter Margaret, Juliette Binoche in the role of a French film editor, Parker Posey, Patrick Schwarzenegger, Michael Stuhlbarg, and many more. Such stacked casting and dramatic subject matter made for lightning in a bottle—and ever since the series released on May 5, it’s become a pop culture phenomenon (and the subject of many Twitter memes). Today, the eighth and final episode of The Staircase is available on HBO Max, and although the acclaimed series is now coming to a close, there are still plenty of films, miniseries, and television shows that contain the kinds of themes and subject matter that make The Staircase so juicy: murder, family tension, addiction, intrigue, and of course, the allure of a total narcissist.
The Undoing walked so The Staircase could run. When HBO released the former series in October 2020, it quickly became a phenomenon for drama-starved viewers who had spent the past seven months quarantining at home. Fans were fully immersed in the crime, the mystery, the complicated husband-and-wife dynamics between Nicole Kidman, who played Grace Fraser, and Hugh Grant as Jonathan Fraser—it was all enough to set the Internet alight, and it did. For that reason alone, it’s worth a watch (or a rewatch, depending upon your participation in the original rollout), but if you’re looking for a series with tons of intrigue and twists and turns following The Staircase, this is your best bet.
American Murder: The Family Next Door
This list would not be complete without at least one selection of the true crime documentary variety. The Family Next Door, a Netflix doc released in 2020, tells the story of 34-year-old Shanann Watts and her two young daughters, all three of whom disappeared in Colorado in 2018. The tragedy made headlines around the world at the time—and using a combination of police body camera footage, social media posts, text messages, and firsthand video from the investigation, the directors put together a harrowing picture of what really happened.
In The Staircase, Michael Peterson is painted as an on-the-edge narcissist who’s ready to pop off on his children over the phone or throw a fit at any moment. A tale of the ultimate narcissist feels fitting for this list, and American Psycho is just that. This classic is Christian Bale at his best, playing Patrick Bateman, a neurotic and self-absorbed banking executive who lives a second life as a serial killer by night.
Another Nicole Kidman-starring work, director Park Chan-wook's English-language debut tells the story of India Stoker, played by Mia Wasikowska, whose world is turned upside down when her father dies in a car accident. Suddenly, an uncle she never knew existed comes into the picture: Charlie, (Matthew Goode), movies in with India and her mother, (Kidman), and India soon suspects her magnetic lost uncle has something to hide. Stoker contains shades of The Staircase in its psychological thriller elements: what’s real? What’s imagined? And what is the importance of objectivity when murder is involved?
Anatomy of a Scandal
“It’s always the husband,” the French documentarian Jean-Xavier de Lestrade (played by Vincent Vermignon) says at the beginning of episode two of The Staircase. That narrative doesn’t tire in Anatomy of a Scandal, a series that centers Sophie Whitehouse, the wife of British Tory MP James Whitehouse. Sophie learns her husband has been having an affair with an aide—the news goes public, throwing their lives into turmoil and forcing her to deal with the consequences of her husband’s actions. To make matters worse, James is accused of rape and must stand trial.
Throughout The Staircase, Michael Peterson maintains his innocence, incredulous at the fact that he is being roped into the case as a prime suspect. In Gone Girl, Ben Affleck plays Nick Dunne, yet another husband who’s suspected of being involved in his wife Amy’s (Rosamund Pike) disappearance. This David Fincher psychological thriller is a mid aughts classic—and shows Pike at her absolute peak.
Like The Staircase, Landscapers is based on true events—making the premises of both shows even more unbelievable and spooky than some sick-o screenplay writer had dreamed up their narratives. Landscapers concerns a mild-mannered woman named Susan (Olivia Colman) and her husband Christopher Edwards (David Thewlis)—both are fairly typical English folks from the countryside. That is, until it comes to light that Susan and Christopher murdered Susan’s parents and buried them in the back garden of their Mansfield home.
A classic favorite here at W, Tom Gilroy’s exemplary 2007 film Michael Clayton should be next on your list after The Staircase. The movie stars George Clooney in the titular role of an esteemed fixer at a major law firm, where he’s tasked with getting a litigator-turned-whistleblower named Arthur Edens under control as he suffers a mental breakdown. Tilda Swinton, who plays a corporate villain, aims to stop a class-action lawsuit from holding a chemical company accountable for poisoning hundreds of people. The incredible acting from not only Clooney and Swinton, but also Tom Wilkinson as Edens and Sydney Pollack as Marty Bach, echoes the outstanding parts played by The Staircase’s robust ensemble. Basically, if you haven’t seen Michael Clayton, please do.