Colin Firth is having a moment. An infrequent on-screen presence since a five-film outing in 2018, the English actor is currently starring wherever one looks. In addition to his supporting role in Mothering Sunday, Eva Husson’s recently released adaptation of the novel by Graham Swift, Firth plays the lead in John Madden’s new Netflix film, Operation Mincemeat, a saga of World War II-era espionage. Accompanying these movie projects is Firth’s impressive turn in the limited series The Staircase, HBO Max’s morbidly entertaining dramatization of the now 20-year-old Michael Peterson affair. As true crime fans already know, the Peterson case was captured superbly by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s 2004 docuseries of the same name. Yet HBO’s efforts here are not in vain. An eight-episode production impeccably written and cast, the scripted show confirms that there is meat left on this particular bone.

HBO’s series begins Feb. 24, 2017, a notable date in Peterson lore but one that showrunner Antonio Campos (The Devil All the Time) declines immediately to explain. Why is our hero (Firth), a war novelist convicted of the 2001 murder of his second wife, donning a suit complete with a bloodstained tie? Just as importantly, who is the woman (Juliette Binoche) hurrying him along and bestowing, in an intriguing follow-up scene, an affectionate kiss?

That The Staircase stresses such small moments of mystery may well be due to the audience’s presumed familiarity with the more widely reported facts of the case: On Dec. 9, 2001, after an evening of drinking by the pool, Peterson entered his Durham, North Carolina, home to find his wife, Kathleen (Toni Collette), collapsed and bloody at the bottom of the stairs. Summoned by Peterson’s frantic 911 call, police promptly suspected foul play, a conjecture that led eventually to one of the longest murder trials in state history. As the show jumps between the aftermath of Kathleen’s death and the months that preceded it, little will surprise the viewer who saw de Lestrade’s series or read newspapers in the early aughts. Nevertheless, The Staircase’s early going is entirely fascinating. Had a true crime fanatic set out to concoct the perfect jumble of irreconcilable clues, he could hardly have come up with a more perplexing story.

For starters, there is the bewildering crime scene itself. Kathleen’s injuries suggest a struggle, but there are no defensive wounds on her husband, and no one else was in the house. An accidental fall seems possible, but could that scenario have produced quite so much blood? Further muddling things are Peterson’s complicated personal life and damning (or insanely coincidental) past. An active bisexual who may or may not have been “out” to his wife, Peterson once found a second woman dead at the bottom of a set of stairs much earlier in life. Yet despite this intimation of a modus operandi, there is practically no evidence connecting him to his wife’s decease. Peterson may behave for all the world like a man who is hiding the truth, but the principles of justice are mostly on his side.

Through its initial installments, The Staircase remains scrupulously agnostic on the question of its protagonist’s guilt. We “see” Kathleen’s fall near the end of episode two, but the sequence reads as a visualization of the defense’s theory rather than an actual revelation. What emerges in place of forensic certainty is something far more interesting: a dual-track procedural in which both prosecution and defense slowly build a case. At its best, this part of the series is believable and enticingly specific. (Look for the cartload of plastic foam heads with which an analyst tests blood splatter.) It is also, importantly, more than a little claustrophobic. Among the show's most convincing elements is the dissolution of Peterson’s family as the pressures of de facto confinement gradually test the bonds of love. The result is an ensemble drama that is seldom less than gripping.

What, given The Staircase’s manifold successes, holds the program back from true greatness? To begin with, Campos struggles with the historical fact of de Lestrade’s presence, a peculiarity that might have been charmingly “meta” in small doses but receives far too much emphasis here. It is one thing to dramatize material that has already been covered by a documentary. It is quite another to include the documentarians as characters, dedicate whole scenes to their progress, and present the occasional sequence from their camera’s perspective as if trying to replicate the 2004 series with Hollywood stars.

Yet even more distracting is the absurdly graphic presentation of Peterson’s sexuality. As has been widely noted, male genitalia are the new breasts on prestige television, cheap signifiers of “adultness” intended to convey that serious business is afoot. So explicit is The Staircase’s handling of its protagonist’s passions, however, that one wonders if Campos and company mean to evoke (or recreate) the visceral distaste that a pre-Obergefell jury might have felt when confronted with the defendant’s proclivities. Needless to say, some number of viewers will thrill to, e.g., the gay pornography discovered on Peterson’s computer in an early episode. For others, though, the camera’s unblushing stare will do little but repel.

To the extent that The Staircase rises above these flaws, it does so largely on the back of Firth’s masterful portrayal of a man unable to conform to the image of meek innocence. In the actor’s experienced hands, Peterson is at once unlikable and compelling, a cagey dissembler who can no more straighten up for the camera than he can, in the series’s many flashback scenes, refrain from manipulating his wife. Perhaps this, above all, is why myriad audiences have found the events of December 2001 so irresistible. If, as many suspect, Peterson is not guilty of his wife’s murder, he is surely among the unluckiest men in the history of crime and punishment. Observing his behavior, however, one can’t help asking if he deserves it.

Graham Hillard is managing editor of the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal and a Washington Examiner magazine contributing writer.