The terms “undercover investigation” and “crime family” are rarely used in the same sentence as “Big Macs.” But a new six-part docuseries on HBO strings them together to tell a real-life story of lies, fries, and fraud.
McMillions dives deep into the multimillion dollar McDonald’s Monopoly scam that ran from 1989 to 2001. Despite its extreme juiciness and the involvement of two of the world’s most ubiquitous brands, the story fell through the cracks of our collective national consciousness—indictments were handed down on September 10, 2001, but the ensuing trial was overshadowed by the following day’s terrorist attacks. That element of the unknown, that this was really just happening under everyone’s noses, makes the reveals throughout the series all the more thrilling.
In early 2001, the FBI received an anonymous tip suggesting that several of the million-dollar winners of the McDonald’s Monopoly game were in fact related. The concern was first shrugged off as a potential waste of time before an energetic young agent, desperately searching for the “fun” in “Federal Bureau of Investigation” (it is in there), picked up the lead and uncovered a twisted web of fraud that had duped McDonald’s out of $24 million. The FBI quickly learned that someone—known for much of the series as simply “Uncle Jerry”—had access to instant-win McDonald’s Monopoly pieces and was strategically handing them out to close friends and family. Through present-day interviews, simply executed reenactments, and—in part due to the nature of the investigation—an impressive amount of archival footage, it soon becomes clear that there’s much more to this scam than meets the eye. The result is a six-episode emotional roller coaster (of which three episodes were available for review) that is a satisfying mix of a heist movie, an episode of The Sopranos, and a 20/20 special.
McMillions has an immediate advantage in that the real people involved in the story are larger-than-life characters. The shiniest of these stars is the aforementioned young and hungry FBI agent, Doug Mathews. Mathews has the look of a quintessential cop (read: boring white dude), but bubbling beneath the surface is a charismatic storyteller and performer bursting with creative ideas, ideas that make up some of the most fun parts of McMillions. During the FBI’s first meeting with McDonald’s, he shows up in a gold suit, a detail the encapsulates Mathews’ whole vibe early in the series. And the first big sting was a Mathews concoction: FBI agents teamed up with McDonald’s to pose as a production crew filming interviews with the Monopoly promotion’s big winners. Agents posed as the film crew and Mathews hammed it up as the director while Amy Murray, a McDonald’s marketing executive and the only civilian undercover on the case, acted as the interviewer. The infectiousness of Mathews’ energy is evident in footage from the operation and McMillions’ interviews: Other agents are downright giddy recounting their time pretending to use light meters and playing around with framing and style from behind the camera. This strategy ends up being a win for the documentary as well, essentially providing jazzed-up interrogation tapes to play throughout the series.
But it’s not all fun and games, and McMillions deftly navigates the sometimes sudden shifts in tone between these playful moments and the case’s more grim details. In the beginning, it almost seems silly that the FBI would waste time and resources tracking down a measly $24 million lost by a multibillion dollar company. It’s easy to want to root for the scammers who were sticking it to The Man. But this isn’t actually a victimless crime, and when it becomes clear that the mob is involved in doling out the winning pieces, things get downright terrifying for those in the mix—the million-dollar winners included.
There are some moments throughout McMillions that lag: Vital details get bogged down in the nitty-gritty, and not every interview subject has the joie de vivre of Agent Mathews. But for every textbook explanation of how a McDonald’s Monopoly game piece is made, the filmmakers throw in a comedic edit, like a quick cut of the different ways the mob boss’ brother describes him—in one instance, “Al Capone meets Rodney Dangerfield”—with a stilted laugh from his terrified looking wife. Later in the series, this same man orders a McDonald’s coffee with 10 creams, which should be a crime in itself.
In 2018, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck bought the rights to the Daily Beast article that resurfaced the misdeeds of Uncle Jerry and company, with plans to fictionalize it for the big screen. There haven’t been many updates on that project, and maybe there shouldn’t be. McMillions proves that truth is stranger, and more entertaining, than fiction.