McDonald’s has been offering Monopoly game pieces off and on since the late ’80s, and according to HBO’s McMillions documentary, it was a wildly successful promotion, which increases sales for McDonald’s fast food by 40 percent whenever it is run. The catch? From 1989 to 2001, there were barely any legitimate big-prize winners. In fact, the odds of winning the advertised $1 million through the Monopoly game was 1 in 250 million, and yet somehow, the FBI discovered — thanks to a tip — that all the big-money winners could be connected to each other through one man, someone called Uncle Jerry.
That’s where episode one of the six-episode series leaves off, after the FBI conducts a sting upon one of the $1 million winners, 56-year-old Michael Hoover, by posing as a crew doing a story on the winners for McDonald’s PR. On camera, Hoover goes into detail about how he found the winning game piece — losing his People magazine on the beach, going to the grocery store, buying another People magazine and discovering the $1 million prize inside — and the FBI agents ask him to take them through the whole saga with a camera crew following him. He giddily complies, believing that he has pulled a fast one over on McDonald’s, calling up his co-conspirator afterward to laugh about it. Little did Michael Hoover know that the FBI was listening in on his phone call.
Having nailed one of the $1 million winners and connecting him to the ringleader, Uncle Jerry, in the first episode, one wouldn’t imagine there’d be that much ground left to cover in the other five episodes, but The Daily Beast article upon which the series is inspired suggests there’s plenty of material here. “[Uncle Jerry] was the head of a sprawling network of mobsters, psychics, strip-club owners, convicts, drug traffickers, and even a family of Mormons, who had falsely claimed more than $24 million in cash and prizes.”
This I cannot wait to watch, in part because — at least through the first episode — directors James Lee Hernandez and Brian Lazarte bring a comic flair to the proceedings, primarily through FBI Agent Doug Mathews, a larger-than-life figure, who not only enjoys telling this story but, over the years, has seemingly perfected it. He’s giddy for the opportunity to take on an exciting case distinct from the routine white-collar cases with which he is usually saddled. He throws himself into the case, wears a gold suit to meetings, and revels in the opportunity to go undercover as a director with a camera crew. He’s brash and obnoxious, but he knows it, and as a real-life character, he successfully straddles the line between grating and kid-in-a-candy-store.
He’s a big part of the reason why the opening episode is so much fun, but the case comes out of the Jacksonville, Florida FBI office, so there is no shortage of kooky and interesting characters. I am certain at some point the directors will turn their focus inward and explore the darker corners of the fraud being perpetrated here and all the people who were no doubt taken advantage of by the “network of mobsters, psychics, strip-club owners, convicts, drug traffickers, and Mormons,” but for the time being, there’s a certain Coen Brothers-esque vibe to the proceedings, colorful characters going after colorful criminals for a colorful crime involving a giant, faceless corporation that — so far as I can tell through the opening episode — had no idea it was being ripped off. I suspect that this won’t ultimately be a “victimless crime” throughout, but it’s fun to watch a true-crime documentary for once that doesn’t revolve around years of sexual abuse, a murder, or a serial killer. HBO’s McMillions is more like Dear Zachary if all the revelations were fun instead of soul-destroying.
Header Image Source: HBO