It’s a good idea to have a few questions in mind whenever you order a burger. Nothing too wild. Simple stuff, like: Does this burger have cheese? (It should.) Other toppings? (Knock yourself out.) How about fries on the side? (Anything worth doing is worth doing right.) And then the most important question: Is this burger involved in a massive, years-long fraud scheme? Because, as HBO’s McMillions would like to remind us, if you got a McDonald’s burger in the ’90s in the hopes of winning the chain’s annual Monopoly game, there was a huge criminal conspiracy devoted to robbing you of your chance to strike it rich.
The documentary miniseries — which has aired four of six episodes — brings viewers back to the heyday of McDonald’s most successful promotion, which encouraged customers nationwide to buy fast food in order to score more Monopoly-themed game pieces. Prizes for collecting these pieces ranged from inconsequential (free fries) to massive ($1 million). And for twelve years, the game was completely rigged by a slowly expanding group of criminals who figured out how to crack the system.
McMillions devotes its hour-long episodes into slowly unspooling how this crime unfolded over its decade-plus reign, starting from the FBI agents who first started to pursue a tip they nearly dismissed outright, to the associates of the suspects they identify as the case gains traction. It’s a great story in and of itself, one that made national news in the summer of 2018. For the first few minutes of McMillions, however, you wonder if it’s being oversold — there’s some truly cheesy re-enactments, and the show’s initial focus makes it feel terribly narrow, like there isn’t much to hold your attention for five more hours of this.
But there is much more, and the reasons to keep watching start piling up fast. First, there’s Agent Doug Matthews, the most prominent source early on. A junior agent in the FBI at the time the investigation into the Monopoly fraud scheme began, Matthews is such a good TV character it’s hard to believe he is, in fact, a real person. Loquacious and vain, Matthews talks with a soft drawl and heavy bravado, happy to recount his early days helping to construct an elaborate and reckless sting to draw out the fraudsters. He’s almost too eager, to the point where it starts to feel strange to essentially start rooting for the feds at a point where it’s not clear what the actual crime is. Then the bigger picture starts to come into focus, and the cast of characters expands.
McMillions quickly becomes a whirlwind tour of an unlikely underworld, full of wannabe gangsters, Southern real estate impresarios, and friendly drug dealers who look like Jerry from Parks and Recreation. Like a lot of the most satisfying mysteries, the who of this story is apparent early on, and the hows and whys are what keeps you watching.
Mostly, it’s extremely satisfying to get lost in a true crime tale that doesn’t revolve around a grisly murder or the grifting of everyday people — the biggest victims here are almost always McDonald’s, and the people who get too greedy as the Monopoly fraud scheme grows.
The biggest note of discomfort in McMillions doesn’t necessarily relate to the fraud scheme at hand, but the idea of McDonald’s. Early on in the show, the corporation is described as being eager to cooperate with the FBI because of its brand image, a talking head noting that if McDonald’s cannot be trusted thanks to some fraudsters, it would cause irreparable damage to the brand. It’s an aside that kept coming to mind as footage lifted from news reports over the last decade or so played throughout the miniseries, video that showed all manner of everyday people flocking to their local franchise to eat.
It’s striking how ordinary they are in comparison to the louder cast of characters that McMillions follows. They’re an unassuming bunch of people, presumably doing what they need to do to get through an already-too-stressful day. They remind me of the times I ate McDonald’s as a kid, one of too many mouths to feed on not enough money, and then again as an adult, stretched thin and aware that it was sold to me by people paid too little, stretched as thin as I was, for the benefit of suits who, frankly, did not care. It would be a shame if anything happened to that brand image, though.