How ‘Murder on Middle Beach’ Flips the True Crime Genre on Its Head
By Stacy Lambe
What makes HBO’s latest true crime docuseries, Murder on Middle Beach, so compelling is that it ultimately flips the genre on its head. It’s not as much of a whodunnit as it is an emotional journey about overcoming trauma and one son trying to understand the legacy his dead mother left behind.
The four-part series directed by first-time filmmaker Madison Hamburg follows his own investigation into the unsolved murder of his mother, Barbara Hamburg, who was violently killed outside her home in Connecticut in 2010. After the case went cold, Madison decided to take matters into his own hands to not only revisit the events surrounding the murder but to understand exactly who his mother was leading up to her untimely death.
“As a part of the grieving process, I was very scared to lose my memory of her,” Madison tells ET about initially using the project as a way to cope with life without his mother. “Part of starting the documentary was knowing that time was fleeting and memories were fleeting revolving around my mom. So I kind of wanted to immortalize this superhero that she was to me.”
“But when I started asking questions, I realized that I didn’t really know Barbara and the conflicts and complexity and grayness of who she was as a human being. And so all of a sudden I realized I was grieving someone, I didn't know,” he says of the eight-year journey that led him down an unexpected path of uncovering family secrets, deep-seated resentments, connections to a multi-level marketing scheme and confronting law enforcement about the lack of evidence to charge or convict someone -- possibly a member of his own family -- responsible for his mother’s death.
Despite Barbara’s involvement in the “Gifting Table,” which purported to uplift women but was really a pyramid scheme, or her strained relationships with her sister, Madison believes “she was making a lot of decisions out of desperation, out of coercion and just wanting truly the best for her children.”
He adds, “the hardest thing for me was the reality that the documentary itself could be destructive,” especially knowing what it could ultimately do to his family, who opened up to him on camera.
“Asking the hard questions unearthed resentments,” he continues, “and it brought to the surface the distrust that nobody wanted to talk about, but was always there. It was shining a light on the elephant in the room, and maybe it's selfish and maybe it's something that I was doing for me at others' expense, but to me, you have to talk about the elephant if you ever want the elephant to leave.”
While Barbara’s sister, Conway, opens up about her history with substance abuse and makes a stunning accusation against another family member in episode three, or the fact that the only real suspect the police ever had was Barbara’s ex-husband, Jeffrey Hamburg, the documentary doesn’t conclude with a conviction or typical resolution that comes with most of these sensational and addictive crime series.
Instead, to Madison, Murder on Middle Beach is really more of “a story about identity and family, the sort of duality of American idealism, and everyone's sort of projected identity and facades.” And this docuseries shows what's hidden behind those layers, getting closer to the truth with every hard question asked. The end result is a fascinating watch.
The final episode of Murder on Middle Beach airs Sunday, Dec. 6 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on HBO. The series is also available to stream on HBO Max.