Do you remember how big the McDonald's Monopoly game was in the '90s? The fast food chain's lottery-like peel-and-win promotion put dreams of Jet-Skis and enough cash to buy every Beanie Baby in '90s kids' heads, and kept people coming back to buy fries and sodas (McDonald's sales would go up an incredible 40 percent during Monopoly promotions). But those dreams could only ever be dreams, because between 1989 and 2001, the game was riddled with fraud, and almost every winner won at the behest of two men who both went by "Jerry." The six-part documentary series McMillions, which premieres Feb. 3 on HBO, tells the story of how the scheme happened and how the FBI unraveled it, paying special attention to the colorful characters and stranger-than-fiction twists that animate the tale. The series doesn't tell the story of the scam in the absolute best possible way, but it gets away with it based on the energy of the story itself.
The fraud scheme originated with a man named Jerome "Uncle Jerry" Jacobson, an ex-cop who was the head of security for Simon Worldwide, the marketing company McDonald's contracted to carry out the promotion. He was the fox in the henhouse, stealing the game pieces and distributing them to chosen winners with the help of Gennaro "Jerry" Colombo, a crook who claimed affiliation with the Colombo mafia family. The plot was discovered via a tip called in to the FBI's Jacksonville, Florida, field office, and chased down through a sting dubbed "Operation Final Answer." Uncle Jerry's trial started on Sept. 10, 2001, and so the story quickly disappeared from the news, until crime reporter Jeff Maysh resurrected it for a 2018 Daily Beast article.
The docuseries covers much of the same territory as Maysh's article, but with the added bonus of really getting to know some of the larger-than-life personalities involved in the case. There's Special Agent Doug Mathews (no relation), a rookie in the Jacksonville office who played a major role in the investigation. Mathews is a charismatic chatterbox with a mischievous smile who went undercover to interview winners to help piece together the case, because he found going undercover fun and exciting. There's Robin Colombo, Jerry Colombo's vinegary widow, who got very involved in the scam and plays a fatal role in the story. Pretty much everyone involved, on both sides of the law, has a camera-ready personality, which makes for a very entertaining watch.
Despite being fun, McMillions -- written and directed by James Lee Hernandez and Brian Lazarte -- is not especially well-made. It's structured non-linearly when it probably shouldn't be. HBO sent three of the six episodes for review, and an important part of the story -- how the Jerrys met -- is still untold, though the rest of Colombo's involvement in the scam is. An episode largely about a woman named Gloria Brown, who's part co-conspirator and part victim, is a story worth telling, but later in the series than it comes. And the documentary is too on the side of the FBI and McDonald's, barely acknowledging that it's actually pretty cool that a bunch of nobodies from Jacksonville were able to steal millions of dollars over several years from one of the world's biggest corporations. They were doing a greed-fueled crime themselves, sure, but the FBI and McDonald's aren't exactly good guys, either.
But McMillions' flaws are outweighed by how good the story and characters are. It feels like a heist movie -- and it will be someday, as Ben Affleck and Matt Damon hold the rights. (The way a movie producer tipped Maysh off to report the story out with the ultimate goal of adapting it into a feature is an interesting story in itself.) After the movie comes out, it will be fun to see how whoever plays Doug Mathews interpreted his rapid-fire Southern accent. It's not a terribly important documentary, but it is a very entertaining one.
TV Guide rating: 3/5
McMillions premieres Monday, Feb. 3 at 10/9c on HBO.