Buttered and Salty: ‘McMillions’

mcmillions, documentary, miniseries, ronald mcdonald, monopoly, buttered and salty, review, hbo

TV-14, 5hr 44min  


Documentary, Crime, History

Now playing/streaming on HBO Go, HBO Now & On-Demand

“Shelter in place” orders give us an extraordinary amount of time to catch up on things we’ve been putting off around the house; Touching up paint, cleaning the closet or garage, reorganizing the pantry and catching up on movies. This free time particularly allows for digesting some long-form cinema, like the six-hour HBO docuseries “McMillions.” This is fine when the material calls for such a detailed analysis as a six-part miniseries, but like McDonalds famous french fries, after it sits for a bit too long some of the material goes cold and leaves a bitter aftertaste.

“McMillions” is a detailed account of the McDonald’s Monopoly game scam during the 1990’s as told by the participants in the case, including the illegal prizewinners and the FBI agents who became involved after a little Birdie tipped them off. If you thought you never had a chance of getting the Boardwalk/Parkplace duo and being handed that large million dollar check by Ronald McDonald, your instincts were probably correct. It turns out none of us had a chance. Back then I bought more Big Mac’s and played the game more than I’d like to admit, and I never won more than another large fries or soda. Even the $50 prize escaped me. Turns out, the game was fixed by someone more sinister and devious than the Hamburgler himself. Who could this mastermind be? 

Three episodes in and the series tips its hand and tells us, leaving three more hours for us to commit to. This is an issue for me, as I’m trying to work my way through the entirety of “The Office” (2005-2013) for the first time. How am I supposed to finally get to Jim and Pam’s wedding when I have to spend multiple hours grimacing through detailed accounts of literally everyone involved, from public servants like Jacksonville Florida’s District Attorney and Mayor McCheese to the capable (and entertaining) law enforcement agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation to Officer Big Mac.  

The benefit to all this detail and a compliment to director’s James Lee Hernandez and Brian Lazarte is the duo do a great job pulling out tons of information from the subjects they interview and juxtaposing that aspect of the series with the re-enactment portion of the material without allowing it to feel too clunky, which is usually a danger for this type of documentary. I do take issue with one section that was re-created, however; when the filmmakers cut to a re-enactment of two Italian mobsters having food and wine together, the vino bottle is clearly a masked Charles “Two Buck Chuck” Shaw label. As a Sicilian I have to stop them right there. That bottle would never be at that table. Besides the unfortunate prop mistake, the material is very well crafted. 

While effectively shot and edited, I can’t help but wonder if this story could have been told in half the time, making it one three hour documentary film. If “The Act of Killing” (2012) and “The Central Park Five” (2012) can make it work in under three hours, so could have “McMillions.” It’s an interesting expose that straddles the line between corruption and empathy with ease, allowing those that broke the law to be human beings who made mistakes and are looking for forgiveness. It deserves a viewing if you can handle the marathon to get through it but might have been better served as a 6-part Serial-esq podcast. 

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