The Best Docuseries of 2020 was Murder on Middle Beach.

No spoilers here, just vibes

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Hamburg, HBO

Twenty-nine year old Madison Hamburg is the series’ director, documenting his own investigation of his mother’s gruesome murder in an affluent Connecticut suburb. She was killed when he was 18. The murder went unsolved.

This is exactly the kind of thing I wouldn’t watch over the holiday, when I prefer to melt my brain with Parks & Rec reruns. Real life’s been dark enough already that I basically abandoned the true crime scene this year, with the exception of reading Stay Sexy and Don’t Get Murdered (Karen and Georgia, ily). This is all to say that it took a very convincing and trusted television source to get me to log into someone else’s HBO and watch a wack crime story. But then I imbibed all four parts in one sitting.

It started as a college class film project, Madison’s personal quest to understand what happened and absolve his family members (hence interview subjects saying things like ‘hope you get a good grade!’). He didn’t finish, but his professor gave him an A with the condition that he keep working on it. He did, then pitched his work to several outlets. He had no success landing it until one of his very last attempts: HBO.

The whole process took eight years. One of the most fascinating and inspiring threads of the series is watching Madison’s growth. I was astounded not only by his skills as a documentarian, but by his emotional capacity to relive a family tragedy over and over again. He asks family members straight up: “did you kill my mother?” He remains calm and collected when mapping out the murder on his old house’s front lawn. He’s able to leave his own opinions out of the narrative and plug forward in his search for answers.

Structurally, Middle Beach subverts the classic narrative arc, choosing to zoom in on the bureaucratic systems at play. In this way it’s reminiscent of Chanel Miller’s Know My Name, another unflinching look at the failures of our justice system. Madison wants to work with the police, but we see they’re not willing to collaborate — a tension depicted throughout the series.

This is a documentary that doesn’t shy away from the fractured community dynamics that come with unspeakable and unexplainable death. Perhaps that’s why it feels different from other true crime media, not focused on grisly details or forensic evidence. Madison’s position offers a more humanizing perspective. It’s not only a murder investigation, but a re-imagining of family and the deconstruction of a life. Do we really know the people closest to us? Which of our memories are skewed? A theme throughout the piece is getting older, and realizing adults we knew as children are not the idealized versions we attached to them.

Still, the final episode feels tinged with hope — that despite the most horrific acts of violence, people can go on.

If you’ve watched it already and have questions, I recommend this GQ interview with Madison.

Meghan Gunn is a writer. https://www.meghangunn.com/ tweeting @95gunn

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