Reality TV

An Ode to HBO’s ‘The Staircase’ and Its Wild Wig Acting


Forget the (very important) dissection of Nicole Kidman’s best and worst wig looks, Summer 2022 is all about the playing Wig Bingo while watching The Staircase. There you’ll find the hottest and most contested hairpieces to hit television since Kim Zolciak’s shake-and-go synthetics saturated the first four seasons of The Real Housewives of Atlanta.

You may not think that a dramatization of a landmark true-crime docuseries about Michael Peterson’s life after the grisly death of his wife Kathleen would be the go-to spot to find a horrific hair moment, but that’s just what happens when you spend all of your money filling the cast top to bottom with heavy-hitters like Colin Firth, Toni Collette, Parker Posey, and a nefarious CGI owl.

The Staircase has not only been a who’s who of white people in Hollywood but a Clue-style game where audiences try to determine which actor will be working their way through a fun new hair situation that week. It’s a dramatic mystery that poses the equally important questions: “How does trauma affect the family?” and “Was it Colin Firth, in the Durham house, with the blow poke and the disheveled salt-and-pepper wig?”

The show is so absurdly strong in so many aspects—its nonlinear narrative structure, its fascinating editing choices, putting Toni Collette in a neck brace and a smart blazer. Which is why it is so mystifying that the standout stars have become the show’s bonkers wig choices.

While some actors have been lucky enough to seemingly have their wigs considered in the storyline and budget from casting all through filming, others have had a bob plopped on their head with all the grace of a car crash. Seeing so many great actors try to perform their way out of bad wigs is a truly astounding feat that no other television show in recent memory has accomplished at such an advanced level, though Jessica Biel certainly did try. Long after The Staircase has finished its run, its vast spectrum of wig work will be remembered forever.

Some of the pieces are staggeringly good. The blond coif atop Rosemarie DeWitt’s head is, no lie, one of the best that I’ve ever seen. As Candace Zamperini, the sister of suspected homicide victim Kathleen Peterson, she screams in a carnal rage in one moment and quietly exudes haughty suspicion the next—while the wig holds on for dear life. Each perfectly placed strand conveys the essence of a high-strung homemaker who prides herself as much on her looks as she does her convictions, trying to keep it together while every part of her wants to unravel.

Rosemarie DeWitt as Candace Zamperini.

HBO

DeWitt is one of the few actors on The Staircase who managed to avoid the show’s cursed wigs—although her Susan Boyle-inspired piece in today’s series finale is… really quite something to behold. But unfortunately, no one else managed to steer clear of the makeup team’s unintentional wrath throughout the duration of the show’s eight episodes.

The production spent all that money on a wig and makeup prosthetics that would allow Toni Collette to bleed profusely out of her head in three separate death sequences, and by the time they finished arranging that, all they had left of the hair budget was $6, an abandoned Spirit Halloween store, and a prayer.

But no one had to suffer more than Odessa Young. Playing Martha Ratliff, the troubled half of Michael Peterson’s pair of adopted daughters, Young had to go through it as much on screen as she did in the makeup trailer, She goes from a wavy blond bob to full Hot Topic rewards member/pre-Visions Grimes and ends up with a Hoku-style blonde piece that looks like her character is about to burst into “Perfect Day” the second her father is released from maximum security prison.

Occasionally, Young will verbally spar with Sophie Turner, who plays Martha’s sister Margaret Ratliff. Turner mostly manages to evade the wack wig allegations simply because she dyed her hair back to the red she has sported several times throughout her career last summer while the show was filming. But unfortunately, like all of us during a moment of weakness, Margaret Ratliff eventually got bangs—and Sophie Turner’s bangèd-wig looks more like her character in Dark Phoenix went to Supercuts with a coupon.

Colin Firth (L) as Michael Peterson and Juliette Binoche as Sophie Brunet.

HBO

The men don’t fare too much better either. Dane Dehaan and Patrick Schwarzenegger are able to skate by as Peterson’s two sons, but that’s simply because their character’s hairstyles barely changed throughout the years. Colin Firth had the privilege and grand luck of being one of the two top-billed actors, so his progressively graying toupées were mostly spared in the onslaught of messy wig choices.

But poor, poor Michael Stuhlbarg as defense attorney David Rudolph. Fighting for the freedom of a man you believe to be innocent when all the circumstantial evidence says otherwise is hard, but fighting against a 3-inch dome piece velcroed to the middle of your head is the battle of a lifetime. Stuhlbarg looks like a dad who spent part of his kid’s college fund on a hair transplant after catching the Bosley infomercial on television one night in 1998.

Michael Stuhlbarg as David Rudolf.

HBO

But perhaps the worst offender of all is the wig that has launched a thousand tweets, the grey monstrosity that was plunked on Susan Pourfar’s noodle so expeditiously that the only explanation can be that the original actor cast as medical examiner Dr. Deborah Radisch had to pull out of the production mere seconds before cameras started rolling, leaving producers no choice but to run to the Warner backlot and grab the first woman they saw.

Now, I would never say that the hair and makeup people did a bad job. When you’re on a production like this, you can only work with the tools you’re given (read: a budget), and I hesitate to suspect that anyone working behind the scenes wasn’t firing on all cylinders day in and day out, trying to make the hairpieces look a little more natural.

Aside from the inarguably delicious misfire that is the Dr. Radisch Rug Runner, these wigs often work exceptionally well for these characters and the multitude of emotional states they have to traverse as they navigate life with an indestructible connection to an alleged murderer and a homicide case that no one ever predicted would become a media circus spanning two decades. (Phew.)

Susan Pourfar as Dr. Deborah Radisch.

HBO

I would expect that all of Michael Peterson’s children would spin out of control for a little while, at least. Of course, one sister is going to be going through a goth phase while the other is going to desperately grasp at the feeling of control by getting bangs. That’s already how life shakes out for the rest of us at some point or another, it makes sense that it would be the same, and even far more amplified, for these characters.

And so a few hairpieces and the actors wearing them may fail to achieve symbiosis, creating a completely unnatural look and feel and occasionally removing viewers from the scene entirely. So what! You’d be hard-pressed to find another flaw anywhere else in The Staircase, and you can forget beginning your search in its cast’s performances.

Rosemarie DeWitt (L) as Candace Zamperini and Maria Dizzia as Lori Campbell.

HBO

There is simply nothing better than watching Susan Pourfar’s wig stay stiff as a board while she describes an autopsy or watching Parker Posey say, “Fuck, suck, and rim” in a thick Southern accent while interviewing a potential witness and running her hands through each side of her hair before lurching her head forward in disbelief like a John Early character. The Staircase gave us wig acting so good it deserves to be a new Emmy category where both the actors and their hair and makeup team get to collect an award together.

So many other projects have the wigs wearing the actors, The Staircase has them acting the wigs off. Even when the hairpieces on the actors are bad, they’re still chewing through the scenery like they haven’t had lunch in days, creating one of the finest true-crime series of the last decade. Of all the great things this show did—and it did so, so many—the best may be that it turned wig acting into a competitive sport, and each person on the call sheet got a bright, shining moment to vie for MVP.





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