With four episodes – three about an hour long and the last 90 minutes – of HBO Murder on the middle beach is an ambitious calling card for director Madison Hamburg. It’s an interrogation of some of the most popular methods of documentary making – part self-discovery, part true crime, part genealogy – and which requires time and investment, from the director and the audience.
Could it be a two-hour movie or perhaps a two-night HBO event? Maybe. Heck, absolutely. Still, it’s hard not to appreciate all of the things Hamburg is grappling with here – both of which relate specifically to his own traumatized family and often involve larger questions about the What his chosen genre can be achieved by healing, solving mysteries, and imposing order in any chaotic situation.
Too long and too complicated, but emotionally satisfying.
“When people come of age, they get to see their parents as human beings and I don’t,” Hamburg mused at the end of the first hour of the show. Murder on the middle beach.
Indeed, Hamburg’s mother, Barbara, was brutally murdered in 2010 outside her home in coastal Connecticut. Hamburg was 18 years old at the time, studying at university. The bodies were found by Madison’s sister Ali and his aunt Conway, both of whom were the target of some suspicion. The day she was murdered was supposed to be an important court date for Barbara in her bitter divorce from Jeffrey, a former energy industry millionaire and alleged financial fraudster who also naturally the target of some suspicions.
Note: Barbara is part of the Barbaras family, including Madison’s grandmother, who appeared in the documentary. And no one is to blame when the crime happened on Middle Beach Road and Barbara’s maiden name and the names of many of her relatives was “Beach”, nor the Connecticut town name Madison and the filmmaker’s name/ Our main character is Madison. It’s nobody’s fault, but sometimes it’s very confusing.
Of course, that’s not the confusion Madison (Zac Efron would be wise to get the narrative rights to because of the physical resemblance) is trying to explain. Filmmaking is in his blood and his childhood was all on video and the family’s Beach side is dedicated to family movies, but you can understand how his identity is when the footage Happy from holidays, anniversaries, and childhood milestones that seem completely disconnected from a history of alcoholism, divorce, and divorce? How do you use technology that creates the illusion of a perfect suburban community to solve a murder, solve a corporate scandal, expose evil and addiction?
Sometimes, Murder on the middle beach is Madison and his gang of Savannah College of Art and Design producers and colleagues traveling across the country playing Scooby Gang. For 4.5 hours – filled in segments from 2013, 2016 and 2019, with no explanation for the director’s resource increase – Madison only asked at least four members of his family to watch them had anything to do with Barbara’s murder. He walked past the locker. He submits a FOIA request. He hires a team of private investigators and experts. He conducts stealthy sting operations recording conversations with police officers and his father. It’s not always clear if what Hamburg is doing is good detective work, it’s just that he’s making an effort that the police apparently stopped doing years earlier. Plus, the search for the answer doesn’t have to be fruitful.
If you just accept the mess of amateur activity in Hamburg, dead ends and misdirections will have an allure of their own. What if there was an entire episode dedicated to Connecticut’s brief fascination with Ponzi schemes known as the “gift board” and that whole hour yielded no probabilistic value? You can blame HBO for not telling the director, “It’s been too long, cut it.” You might feel skeptically that the “secret society” aspect of the gift boards might remind some HBO executives of a cult, and they hope audiences will perceive NXIVM. Or you can accept stumbling, and time it seeping, as something that reflects the difficulty of what Hamburg is trying to do. Sure, therapy could be more effective, but there’s even some therapy here, delivered by an unlikely source.
What was more effective was Hamburg’s attempt to understand his mother’s life – not just her death – and all the estrangements in his family. What documentaries do best, for me at least, is documenting family mess, betrayal, little things and secrets. So many secrets. Editing an entire genealogy isn’t exactly Madison’s goal, but to bring people together for a confession video or to make an announcement, he can offer a treatment, creating a world. its own new family of movies will air on HBO. And what’s at the heart of the documentary is that as intense as these reunions have been, airing this story – and the extremes Madison turns towards in her search for truth – will create layers nasty class for the Beach and Hamburgs.
The SerialType mystery rarely comes together in a traditionally satisfying way as simply as you might hope, and the fully autobiographical elements feel lingering, but the way the series is perceived as the new meta-test about why we are attracted to real crime in its forms. It doesn’t pack the cold or the punch of HBO I’ll Walk In The Dark or have the rigor of the mind of FX A wilderness of bugs. It is an intellectual coping mechanism and an emotional healing process that comes alive through four parts, exposed and ungainly, raw and hopeful as that is implied.
Episodes air Sunday nights at 10 p.m. ET/PT on HBO starting November 15.
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