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At four episodes — three hovering around an hour and a finale stretched to a whopping 90 minutes — HBO’s Murder on Middle Beach is an ambitious calling card for director Madison Hamburg. It’s an interrogation of several of the most common modes of documentary filmmaking — part self-exploration, part true crime, part family tree — and that sort of thing takes time and investment, from the director and the audience.
Could it have been a two-hour movie or perhaps a tighter two-night HBO event? Probably. Heck, absolutely. Still, it’s hard not to appreciate all of the things Hamburg is grappling with here — both as they specifically relate to his own trauma-fueled family and generally relate to bigger questions of what his chosen genre can accomplish by way of therapy, mystery-solving and imposing order on any chaotic situation.
“When people get to adulthood, they get to meet their parents as human beings and I didn’t have that,” Hamburg muses toward the end of the first hour of Murder on Middle Beach.
Indeed, Hamburg’s mother Barbara was brutally murdered in 2010 outside of her home in coastal Connecticut. Hamburg was 18 at the time, away at college. The body was found by Madison’s sister Ali and his aunt Conway, who have both been targets of some suspicion. The day of her murder was supposed to be a key court date for Barbara in her acrimonious divorce from Jeffrey, a former energy industry multi-millionaire and accused financial fraudster, who has also naturally been a target of some suspicion.
Note: Barbara is part of a family line of Barbaras, including Madison’s grandmother, who appears in the documentary. And it’s nobody’s fault that the crime took place on Middle Beach Road and Barbara’s maiden name and the name of many of her relatives is “Beach,” nor that the Connecticut town’s name is Madison and our filmmaker/protagonist’s name is Madison. It’s nobody’s fault, but it’s very confusing at times.
That, of course, is not the confusion Madison (Zac Efron would be wise to acquire the narrative rights given the physical resemblance) is trying to make sense of. Filmmaking is in his blood and his childhood is all on video and the Beach side of the family was dedicated to home movies, but what sense can you make of your identity when the happy footage from holidays and celebrations and childhood milestones seems entirely disconnected from a history of alcoholism, divorce and spousal abandonment? How do you use the technology that created an illusion of perfect suburban community to solve a murder, crack a corporate scandal, expose demons and addictions?
At times, Murder on Middle Beach is Madison and his gang of Savannah College of Art and Design producers and colleagues traveling the country playing Scooby Gang. Over the 4.5 hours — filled in segments from 2013, 2016 and 2019, without explanation for the director’s increased resources — Madison point-blank asks at least four members of his family if they had anything to do with Barbara’s murder. He goes through storage lockers. He files FOIA requests. He hires a team of private investigators and experts. He executes sting operations surreptitiously recording conversations with police officers and his father. It isn’t always clear if what Hamburg is doing is good detective work, just that he’s making an effort the police seemingly stopped making years earlier. Plus, the search for answers needn’t necessarily be fruitful.
If you just embrace the clunkiness of Hamburg’s amateur sleuthing, the dead-ends and misdirections take on a charm of their own. If there’s an entire episode dedicated to Connecticut’s brief infatuation with the Ponzi scheme known as “gifting tables” and that full hour yields nothing of probative value? You could blame HBO for not telling the director, “This is way too long already, trim it.” You could cynically feel that the “secret society” aspect of the gifting tables probably reminded some HBO executive of a cult and they hoped audiences would get NXIVM vibes. Or you could accept the stumbling, and the time it absorbs, as something that reflects on the difficulty of what Hamburg is attempting. Sure, therapy might be more efficient, but there’s even some of that here, delivered by an unexpected source.
What’s more fruitful is Hamburg’s attempt to understand his mother’s life — not just her death — and all of the estrangements within his family. What the documentary does best, for me at least, is capture familial messiness, betrayals, slights and secrets. So many secrets. Reconciliation of an entire family tree is not exactly Madison’s goal, but in bringing people together for filmed confessionals or to make announcements, he’s maybe offering a balm, making his own new generation of very public home movies that will air on HBO. And it’s central to the documentary that as tense as these reunions already are, the airing of this saga — and the extremes Madison goes to in seeking his truth — will produce its own layers of discomfort for the Beaches and Hamburgs.
The Serial-style mystery rarely comes together in as traditionally satisfying a whodunit way as you might hope for, and the autobiographical elements absolutely feel protracted, but the way the series gels is as the latest meta examination of why we’re attracted to true crime in all its forms. It doesn’t pack either the chill or the punch of HBO’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark or have the brainy rigor of FX’s A Wilderness of Error. It’s an intellectual coping mechanism and an emotional healing process come to life over four parts, as exposed and ungainly and raw and hopeful as that implies.
Episodes air Sunday nights at 10 p.m. ET/PT on HBO starting November 15.
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