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Review: McMillions is a great documentary on a US$24 million McDonald's scam

By Tim Augustin - 14 Feb 2020

Review: McMillions is a great documentary on a US$24 million McDonald's scam

Unravel the conspiracy. | Image: HBO

McMillions is a documentary series on HBO that centres on the McDonald’s Monopoly game scam. See, between 1989 and 2001, McDonald’s consumers could collect peel-off tickets with their purchases and collect Monopoly properties. If they collected enough properties or became instant winners, they could collect rewards from McDonald’s - such as a free drink or a massive US$1 million payout. One of these things is slightly better than the other. 

However, it later came to light that the game was the subject of a massive fraud - to the point where there were almost no legitimate winners of the game’s major prizes after more than a decade. The case was documented in an intensive article in The Daily Beast by Jeff Maysh, but this series is a whole lot more in-depth, diving into the massive FBI investigation that occurred, as well as a whole bunch of other people involved in it. 

 

I’m lovin’ it

McMillions is incredibly easy to get into. The series presents one big mystery - who scammed McDonald’s out of US$24 million, and how did they do it? With some fun visual flair and larger than life interviewees, it’s not hard to get swept along in the story. The show relives the long and complex case in six episodes - and although it does feel dragged out at times, it’s definitely worth the watch. 

What really makes HBO’s new documentary pop are the personalities of its interviewees. Most of them are fascinating to watch as they relive their past to the camera, while others, like FBI agent Doug Mathews, are plain hilarious. Mathews hams it up for the camera at every turn, poking fun at himself and the people he worked with while telling his story with as much pomp and circumstance as possible. He is by far the best part of this show. 

 

There’s a lot going on here

Who scammed McDonald's out of so much money? | Image: HBO

While the McDonald’s Monopoly game scam is a pretty fascinating case to get into, a six-episode series might have been the wrong way to go about it. The case is complex and full of twists and turns, yes, but not as much as the showrunners probably would have liked. The series spends a painstakingly long time introducing us to each person directly or indirectly involved with the case, while it might’ve been simpler to just stick with the most important few. 

I understand the reasoning behind it, however. McMillions isn’t content with glossing over the finer details - it wants every inch of this elaborate conspiracy explained in the show, even the dull bits. That can make for some pretty great television - like US$1 million winner Gloria Brown spilling her beans on camera for the first time ever. Flipping over from Mathews’ retelling of her story to Brown’s own version of the events results in one of the show’s most powerful moments. 

Doug Mathews is hilarious. | Image: HBO

However, there are long stretches where the show delves a little too deeply into the side-stories of those involved in the case, and thus loses the plot a little. We’re all here to see what happened with the scam, who did it and how it unfolded - not to listen to every single interviewee’s personal drama. 

By Episode 3, it felt like most of the show’s best moments were already behind it. Hopefully, McMillions is saving its best for last. 

 

Verdict

This is an interesting show - but it might be more suited to a one-night binge. | Image: HBO

Although the show starts slowing down by its third episode, the mystery at the heart of McMillions is enough to keep you coming back. Its cast of characters are a delight to watch, and its visual flair (and excellent opening title sequence) spice up the show’s run. McMillions starts very strong, focusing on the larger mystery, but quickly descends into an intimate look at how the scam impacted the lives of those involved in it. 

Due to an absence of footage of the more interesting parts of the case’s history, these dramatic retellings often fall flat. Hopefully, the show gets back on track soon, but until then - you’ll still want to watch it for Doug Mathews and his happy-go-lucky attitude about the massive US$24 million scam.

New episodes of McMillions premiere same time as the U.S. every Tuesday at 11am on HBO GO and HBO.