McMillions premiered on HBO on Monday, February 3rd.
Wherever there are gains, there is the risk of ill-gotten gains. Even at the drive-thru.
The McDonald’s Monopoly game, featuring both instant-win opportunities and game pieces that could be collected to win prizes in sets, has been run in markets around the world off and on since 1987. It has encouraged people to collect their game pieces from french fry boxes and cups, and even from inside magazines. And, as Jeff Maysh detailed in The Daily Beast in 2018, throughout the 1990s, it was the subject of massive fraud.
Now, HBO has a documentary series called McMillions (which they style in some places, but not all, as McMillion$). Told in six parts, it begins with a flashy FBI agent who discovered a Post-It note on his partner’s desk about the case and sank his teeth into it, and it widens out to include McDonald’s personnel, other investigators, and the people closely and less closely connected to the scheme that saw game pieces directed into the hands of particular conspirators. How did they do it? How did it turn out that, the agent asserts on camera, there were “almost no legitimate winners” of the major prizes for more than 10 years? It takes multiple hours to explain.
McMillion$ is blessed with one of the great tools of an enjoyable documentary: a great cast of characters. The first couple of episodes are anchored by Doug Mathews, the agent who started chasing the fraud with his partner Rick Dent. You may find Mathews delightful, as I did, or you may find him an obnoxious showboat, as some of my correspondents on Twitter did. Both of those positions seem entirely defensible. (Dent very firmly declines to participate in the documentary because he is the opposite of Mathews, who appears to be having a tremendous amount of fun telling the story.) Without giving anything away, practically everyone involved seems to have a larger-than-life personality, at least in the three episodes offered to press.
But what elevates the series above your basic can-you-believe-this whale of a tale is that directors James Lee Hernandez and Brian Lazarte are able to pull back and show the parts of this story that are substantially less whimsical. One woman is originally introduced as an almost comically bad liar, but later given an opportunity to explain how she wound up in this situation. It isn’t that hard to understand how she felt it was a relatively minor moral wrong to deprive people of a lucky windfall and grant yourself one instead — that that chance is a “blessing,” as one “winner” puts it. And she explains how she, too, was taken advantage of.
Big crime, when nonviolent, can have an element that’s sort of funny — audacious, inventive, and doomed to blow up in the faces of the perpetrators. But big criminals often suck in small criminals, and in those stories, you often find desperation and naivete. If the government entices you to do something you’d never have done on your own, that’s entrapment; if a criminal entices you to do something you’d never have done on your own, that’s your life changed. McMillions does a good job making that turn, almost leveraging its own lightness to make the point.
The first episode is masterful in setting up the FBI agents as heroes: It draws the Jacksonville, Fl. office where the investigation went down as a sleepy destination, an unusually boring place to be part of the FBI. It uses music you might hear in a ‘70s cop show when important discoveries go down. It focuses on Mathews’ desire to go undercover for the fun of it. There’s clever use of abrupt silences to bring out the comedy in his high-octane yarn-spinning.
But as the series goes on, it changes shape, which is one of the reasons I wish the whole thing had been available to preview. I’m curious about the ultimate structure of these six episodes, but the first three had my full attention.