Discussions of the ethics of true crime invariably come back to this question: How would you feel if the worst day of your life was repackaged as entertainment? A former true-crime producer once told this writer that the reason he quit the job was because he couldn’t get over family members mechanically repeating the circumstances of their loved ones’ violent deaths for the hundredth time. But what if the person behind the camera was one of those loved ones as well? That’s the disarming—and sometimes discomfiting—spin of HBO’s Murder On Middle Beach, a four-part docuseries where filmmaker Madison Hamburg investigates his mother Barbara Beach’s unsolved murder.
On the one hand, if anyone has the right to tell this story, it’s Hamburg. And the human toll of his investigation is very close to the surface in Murder On Middle Beach, particularly when his questions get more pointed later on. Part of that is because he’s interviewing his own relatives about the murder, opening lines of inquiry that reveal deep fissures in the family before and after Beach’s death on March 3, 2010. As it turns out, Beach, her ex-husband (and Madison’s father) Jeffrey Hamburg, and her sisters all had secrets, each of which could have provided a motive for the murder. At one point, an aunt openly accuses her then-teenage niece of having “something to do” with it, adding an eyebrow-raising, stomach-churning awkwardness to a family party scene a few minutes later.
Aside from an openly stated desire to exonerate his family members, Hamburg is careful not to editorialize on what he thinks really happened in Murder On Middle Beach. Instead, he takes what he calls a “character-based” approach to the mystery, which naturally leads to viewers drawing their own conclusions about who was responsible for Beach’s death. Hamburg is aware of how viewers consume true crime—at one point, he wonders aloud what his father will think when he watches the series, given that his refusal to answer questions about the murder on camera “makes him look like a murderer” in the eyes of the audience. But he forges ahead anyway, unsure whether completing the documentary will fix things or make them worse. “I’ll never stop, because I wake up in the morning, and I look in the mirror, and I see her,” he says.
At times, the raw vulnerability on display in the series is painful, like when Hamburg and his aunt Conway re-create the exact moment when Conway found her sister’s body on the lawn of her Connecticut home. At others, it’s touching, as when Madison’s grandmother (and Beach’s mother) Barbara Lund tearfully remarks how much his sister Ali looks like their mother. Some of the techniques on display are so widely used that they don’t really register as especially personal, like the home movies that appear throughout the series. Others are extraordinary, like the hidden camera footage of Hamburg questioning his dad that’s part The Jinx and part Dear Zachary—but with less certainty than either of them.
That’s not to say that you can’t enjoy Murder On Middle Beach, or that it wags a finger at the audience for treating it like a soap opera. The allegations that fly throughout the series are indeed scandalous, a tale of greed and debauchery behind a “nice,” white, upper-middle-class façade that will be familiar to viewers who spend their Saturday afternoons prone on the couch watching the Oxygen or ID networks. In fact, the actual substance of this four-hour miniseries could comfortably fit into an hourlong episode of a TV true-crime show—or even a Dateline segment, really. That’s if you took out the personal element, of course, as well as the first-person testimony where each of the involved parties gives their side of the story (except for Hamburg’s father, who as previously mentioned refuses to discuss his ex-wife’s death in any detail). Do the extra hours make the story any more complex? Not really. Do they make it more memorable? Definitely.