Feb 2, 2020
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Review: HBO’s ‘McMillions’ Reminds Us That Every Era Has Its Scam

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A six-part documentary tells the story of the great 20th-century McDonald’s Monopoly fraud case with quirky characters and lackluster visuals.

Oftentimes when listening to one of the dozens of excellent investigative podcasts I struggle to commit to, I’ll think, “this would make a great TV show.” When watching “McMillions,” a documentary series premiering on HBO Monday night, mostly I thought, “this would make a great podcast.”

The story is wild: The McDonald’s Monopoly game, for some reason beloved in the 1980s and ’90s, was rigged. Players were supposed to collect peel-off tickets and either amass properties à la the board game or find instant winners, but a sprawling F.B.I. investigation uncovered the ludicrous scam in which a security officer for the marketing company that oversaw the production of the game pieces secretly snatched the winning pieces and distributed them — for a fee — to friends, family and eventually acquaintances.

Given its total lack of visual interest, though, I’m not sure why this is a six-part TV documentary. What are the slow shots of present-day McDonald’s restaurants meant to evoke? Why is the same b-roll footage of a “Monopoly Is Back” marquee shown multiple times?

That blandness adds nothing, but it’s the hazy re-enactment footage that actively hurts “McMillions.” Images of the backs of F.B.I. agents sitting at their desks do not enrich the story, and perhaps viewers could be trusted to know what an envelope looks like. If the feds actually put together one of those crazy-wall bulletin boards, I’d love to see it or hear what was on it — because the one in the re-creation includes a Post-it note that reads “HOW’S HE DOING IT?” Yes, one could call that the million-dollar question.

This underdeveloped visual aesthetic is a pity because seemingly everyone involved in both the crime and the investigation is, to be polite, a character, be it the excitable F.B.I. agent, the mob widow, the mildly reluctant prize winner or the loyal McDonald’s employee who helps with the sting. And through their voices, “McMillions” is a blast, the kind of pert caper saga that’s easy to love. A multibillion-dollar company turning a board game that was intended to teach players about the dangers of wealth accumulation into a promotional lottery, only to be defrauded by an ex-cop for 12 years is so American it should be on a stamp.

In the three episodes made available to critics, the dominant figure is Doug Matthews, an F.B.I. agent whose enthusiasm for the investigation is both charming and unnerving. (When another F.B.I. agent solemnly says that no, the quest for justice is not “fun,” it’s hard to believe him.) He complains about a meeting being so long that he “might have been hungry twice,” and he describes working undercover the way an excited 9-year-old might describe their best Halloween ever. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck are making a feature movie about this case, and the Matthews role seems like a plum one. (The movie is based on the terrific 2018 Daily Beast article about the case; the “McMillions” filmmakers James Lee Hernandez and Brian Lazarte say they were working on this before that article came out. )

“McMillions” is full of quirky details, of bizarre coffee orders and surprising attitudes, of snarfy little dogs and odd pauses, of clipped chuckles and longing sighs, of strained jokes and quaint archival commercials. Unlike other true-crime stories, there’s no powerful grief narrative or social injustice at play. Genuine victimhood here is hard to nail down; weep not for the integrity of fast-food tie-ins. I feel bad for the woman who mortgaged her house to buy into the scheme, but also, that seems like an easy enough thing to avoid.

And so “McMillions” is a fun oasis from misery, a comforting remote world where cheaters are caught and prosecuted. But it also feels slight and uncommanding, letting both your eyes and your mind wander.

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