The editor-in-chief of the daily newsletter Best Evidence, Sarah D. Bunting knows a thing or two about true crime. Her weekly column here on Primetimer is dedicated to all things true crime TV.
Madison Hamburg, the first-time filmmaker at the helm of Murder On Middle Beach, was only 18 when his mother was killed in March of 2010. According to HBO's press materials, Hamburg's four-part docuseries is an attempt "to piece together her life story." But it's also an attempt to solve her murder — or at least to light a new fire under an investigation that's gone cold in the intervening decade. Along the way, it raises some interesting questions about true crime itself.
I should start off by saying that Murder On Middle Beach is very compelling, and I recommend it. It reminds me of other deeply personal documentaries like Yance Ford's Strong Island and Kurt Kuenne's Dear Zachary that bear witness to the violent deaths of loved ones; these projects are a distinct subclass of true crime. Even though a crime is at the heart of each production, and is its reason for existing, what's being documented isn't just the murder case, but grief and its aftershocks — the empty spaces, the search for closure that isn't ever coming.
In the case of Murder On Middle Beach, it's this hybrid purpose that makes it so interesting. Hamburg is trying to come to terms with his parents as flawed human beings, as we all do, but at the same time he's trying to determine whether one or more of those flaws led to his mother's murder. Because Hamburg is basically becoming a documentarian in real time as he forges ahead with the series, he's perfectly positioned to tell the complex and frustrating story of his family without the layers of artifice a more seasoned director might have added.
As the story unfolds in fits and starts, information and perspectives enter the narrative that simultaneously illuminate and muddy the bigger picture — a bitter divorce, a family history of substance abuse that calls memories and timelines into question, a female-empowerment pyramid scheme — MOMB illustrates, almost by accident, the difficulties that any investigation faces. Witnesses have axes to grind; suspects won't speak without counsel present; the police won't share information.
Hamburg's narrative chronology can be challenging, with various revelations or new-to-the-viewer theories feeling like off-the-cuff details tossed in to create episode cliffhangers, but even as I occasionally grumbled, "Wait, now you're telling us this?", I was riveted. It's effective, and the audience's struggle to fit all the information into a cohesive hypothesis is a potent parallel with Hamburg's struggle to do the same.
Murder On Middle Beach is an unsettling watch at times. We see Hamburg listening to the 9-1-1 call from that fateful day, but we don't hear it ourselves; having to record its effect only via a stricken son's face is powerful. Hamburg's ongoing petitioning of his father Jeffrey to say anything substantive or probative about his ex-wife's death or the shady financial dealings that may have led to the demise of their marriage (Barbara Hamburg was due in family court in pursuit of child support and alimony payments the day she was found murdered in her front yard) — does eventually lead to evidence of a sort, but it's that Jeffrey cares more about potential legal exposure than he does about his son's peace of mind.
There's a fair bit of self-help-speak about "choosing to stay in" dark times. But it's a worthwhile reminder that there's no such thing as a "perfect victim"... that "putting a human face" on a case file means just that. Sometimes painful, often ambiguous, a Möbius of financial crimes and family court, Murder On Middle Beach will capture your full attention for the duration, and despite a final chyron that appears to hint at a second installment, the series is satisfying. It may not solve the case; it may not bring cinematic resolution to Hamburg's relationships with his family of origin, but it does remind us that true crime, like life itself, is rarely as black and white as TV would often have us believe.
Murder on Middle Beach premieres on HBO November 15 at 10:00 PM ET.
Sarah D. Bunting co-founded Television Without Pity, and her work has appeared in Glamour and New York, and on MSNBC, NPR's Monkey See blog, MLB.com, and Yahoo!. Find her at her true-crime newsletter, Best Evidence, and on TV podcasts Extra Hot Great and Again With This.