In 1989 the McDonald’s Monopoly game was two years old. That’s all the time it needed before it became a fraud.
Through 1989 and 2001, ex-cop Jerry Jacobson scammed McDonald’s for millions through the Monopoly game which the company used to increase its profits nearly 40% each time the fast-food company used the marketing tool.
How does that happen for so long?
That’s the basis of the new HBO documentary series McMillions (or, if you must, McMillion$). It’s a blast.
Directed by James Lee Hernandez and Brian Lazarte and produced by Mark Wahlberg, McMillions details the beginnings and failures of the McDonald’s Monopoly game — and what a fitting name it becomes! Jerry Jacobson, or “Uncle Jerry” as he’s come to be known, finds a way to collect all of the grand prizes (for years!) before a small Jacksonville, Florida FBI unit decides to investigate the suspicious winnings. Turns out, several family members were constantly raking in the jackpots worth more than a cheeseburger, but the detective on the case — a hardboiled, old school figure who even refuses to be on camera — had it on the back burner until a young, upshot agent comes along and uncovers some fishy details about the game after boredom had set in from previous assignments.
And boy, what an agent he is! FBI Agent Doug Mathews is a star. Whenever he’s on camera, you know you’re going to get another piece of the wild tale told in his bombastic way. He’s hilarious! (It would be no shock if he got his own show from this.)
It’s Mathews that gets the ball rolling on the plot: no one outside a few connected, yet differently named, family members seem to be winning at McDonald’s Monopoly. It’s Mathews who talks the fast-food company into allowing the game go forward just one more time so that they can track down the methods that these people have used to rope in the major money. In the first episode alone, Mathews has moved from desk agent to uncover work, playing the role of film director in order to film the most recent Monopoly winner, who proudly displays the oversize check and proudly repeats his unbelievable story of how he lucked out to win. When that footage plays, the series moves from delightful and funny to enthralling and addictive.
Luckily, Mathews isn’t carrying the story alone. There are a lot of fantastic, unbelievable characters in this bizarre piece of American corruption, some even in the McDonald’s organization.
Hernandez and Lazarte zip through the story, propelling it with choppy editing choices that could become annoying elsewhere. Not here. And Mathews’ constant — and funny — jokes pepper reenactments, interviews, and actual footage from the investigation in the first two episodes.
It’s all flashy as hell, but it’s such a great documentary series that is stylized just so to fit an incredible story.
What’s more American than rigging the system, anyway? Maybe fast food. Well, it’s all here.
McMillions airs on Mondays on HBO.