By Sarah Osman
HBO’s McMillion$ is a fun and light documentary, but it doesn’t deliver more than the momentary satisfactions of a fast food.
McMillion$, written and directed by James Lee Hernandez and Brian Lazarte. HBO
In the 1990s, McDonald’s became known for a few things: “PlayPlaces,” where children bombarded each other with colorful plastic balls, miniature Beanie Babies, and the fast food chain’s version of the board game Monopoly. The game premiered in 1989 and involved collecting various tokens handed to customers when they bought specified menu items (the tokens were also available in newspaper ads and other advertising material). The tokens could be exchanged for small prizes, such as free french fries. But some of the prizes were worth millions of dollars. When a person collected the coveted prize pieces Park Place and Boardwalk, for example, the reward was around five million dollars. McDonald revved up this contest every year, reminding consumers with endless cheesy commercials showing astonished people randomly winning a million dollars while scarfing down a cheeseburger. Little did anyone know at the time that the game was rigged, to the tune of $24 million. The scam, which ran until 2001, is the focus of HBO’s newest documentary, McMillion$.
Executive produced by Mark Wahlberg and written and directed by James Lee Hernandez and Brian Lazarte, McMillions (aka McMillion$) comes off as an amusingly weird exploration of a culture addicted to gambling. The Monopoly game became popular because customers not only could eat their coveted Big Mac, but had a chance to land a million dollars while doing so. Americans are clearly drawn to winning made easy — via lotteries, sweepstakes, and contests — as they go about their daily business. The series, which premiered earlier this month, is a welcome change from the traditional murder documentaries and, since the show airs weekly, Wahlberg, Hernandez, and Lazarte have been able to build tension (up to a point) with each episode.
The crime first came to the public’s consciousness when Jeff Maysh wrote about it in 2018 for the Daily Beast. “How an Ex-Cop Rigged McDonald’s Monopoly Game and Stole Millions” quickly went viral. The story was bought by Fox to be made into a movie (Matt Damon is slated to star; filming has yet to begin.) The topic’s popularity is understandable—we’ve seen an uptick in stranger-than-fiction crime stories, ranging from Serial to Wild Wild Country. The nonfiction docuseries has even spawned parodies, such as Netflix’s American Vandal (which was canceled too soon). But the more recent documentaries—such as Fyre—tend to rely more on the weirdness of their subjects than on the craft of putting together a compelling film. Unfortunately, McMillions falls, more often than not, into that trap. The filmmakers prefer sensationalism to strong filmmaking. Indeed, certain scenes, including various reenactments, feel a bit more like an Errol Morris film than an HBO documentary.
The sordid tale begins with FBI Special Agent Doug Mathews, who first became aware of the white collar crime. He is by far the most entertaining part of McMillions. He has virtually no filter, making it known to all just how desperately he wants to go undercover. His colleagues treat him like a child they have to begrudgingly babysit; in response, Mathews describes his senior officer as “having as much personality as this piece of wood.” Sadly, we are never treated to a sampling of his senior officer’s charisma (or lack thereof) because he does not make an appearance. Eventually, Mathews convinces other agents to help him pursue the case. The fact that he is on the hunt only makes Mathews more outrageous. At one point, the guy shows up to a meeting with McDonald’s executives dressed in a gold suit that is supposed to represent the Golden Arches. Given Mathews’s showmanship, the action slows considerably when he isn’t on screen.
By the end of the first episode, a mysterious “Uncle Jerry” is introduced. By the second episode, it is revealed that the Mafia is involved in the scam. It’s easy to laugh at the idea of Italian hoods scamming McDonald’s, but listening to a “victim” of one of the schemes being interviewed generates a surprising amount of pity.
Parts of the episodes come off as screwball comedy, other parts drag. Examples of the latter would be multiple scenes of FBI agents explaining how dangerous it is to go undercover. You get the point the first time. And, while hearing from those caught in the criminal web adds pathos, there is a major lacuna in the dramatization: we never hear from “Uncle Jerry” or the other Mafia thugs. And if some of the pieces of the scam’s puzzle are missing, that means narrative trouble. We never get to the unsavory nitty gritty—exactly how was this bunco job pulled off in the first place? Instead of seeing into the innards of the crime, we get filler, such as how dangerous it is to go undercover.
Despite never revealing how this heist was pulled off, Hernandez and Lazarte do go into the players various personal struggles and relationships. For some viewers, these insights reveal a bit more about why and how these people got involved. It’s enlightening to hear of a mobster attending seemingly mundane events and spoiling his wife, but that image is quickly shattered when it’s revealed that the couple fought constantly. The human stories are interesting, but not enough to distract from the questions that remained unanswered.
One of the biggest questions McMillions fails to answer is why did America have such an obsession with this game to begin with? Granted, picking Monopoly was brilliant marketing, but we never learn what it was that drew so many consumers in. Perhaps Hernandez and Lazarte chose not to deal with this issue because they didn’t want to seriously challenge viewers. They may have decided to keep the tone breezy and tacky, to match the story’s absurdity. But it comes off as a missed opportunity to discuss America’s obsession with gambling, everywhere, even in fast food restaurants. We are touching on an elemental American appetite here: our love for fast food (and cash). Couldn’t the show critique our hunger for a rich and easy life? Indeed, the players who are dragged into the conspiracy are looking for an instant fix for their problems. But McMillions chooses not to comment on this, instead winking and nudging at viewers, as if to say, “Can you believe how nuts this is?” There’s no way those chumps could be us—is there?
McMillions is a fun and light documentary, but it doesn’t deliver more than the momentary satisfactions of a Big Mac. There were plenty of opportunities to explore the cultural resonances of a remarkable American con job, but there’s nothing here that couldn’t have been efficiently dramatized in two hours rather than six.
Sarah Mina Osman is a writer living in Los Angeles. She has written for Young Hollywood and High Voltage Magazine. She will be featured in the upcoming anthology, Fury: Women’s Lived Experiences Under the Trump Era.