McMillions Review: Highly Entertaining, This True-Crime Story Packs PunchCarissa Pavlica at .
McMillions is a story so good it seems like it comes from one of the greatest fiction writers of all time.
But it's not fiction, it's fact.
Executive produced by Mark Wahlberg and written and directed by James Lee Hernandez and Brian Lazarte, McMillions screams for an "inspired by" counterpart.
The truth of the Monopoly scandal on McMillions features a cast of characters as rich as those at the heart of this tale that brushed against the lives of so many Americans.
Because just like the millions of people who won't admit they watch television thinking their movie-only preference makes them seem more refined, a lot of people don't admit to walking through the golden arches for a tasty treat.
But the lure of instant prizes and potential millions with McDonald's Monopoly game got even the refined to give McDonald's a try.
And like McDonald's itself, the incredible people at the heart of the McMillions scandal represent a piece of everyone inspired by the American dream.
The six-hour documentary begins laying out the case by introducing the FBI agents who saw the alert about potential fraud within the McDonald's Monopoly game and ran with it.
Special Agent Doug Mathews is a producer's dream. He's the antithesis of everything we've come to expect from FBI agents (with the exception of Fox Mulder).
Assigned to Jacksonville, Florida, after his graduation from the academy, Mathews was aching for excitement. Instead, he got partnered with a tenured agent whose unflappable nature bored the hell out of the young agent.
And if you think I might be stretching the truth, I'm doing anything but. As Mathews put it, Special Agent Rick Dent was a career guy with "as much personality as this piece of wood right here."
Admitting that he was "Bored to death with this healthcare garbage, right? It's important! But I was ready to move on," Mathews spotted a note on Dent's desk that piqued his interest.
Essentially begging for a more exciting opportunity, Mathews got the OK to explore the possibility of fraud within McDonald's Monopoly game.
That was the spark that ignited the investigation and ultimately this highly entertaining documentary as well as the end of a highly lucrative criminal element.
That criminal enterprise (with connections to the mafia) were making millions at McDonald's expense by tearing asunder the dreams of junk food eaters everywhere who hoped to get rich or die trying through gorging themselves on McDonald's meals.
Hey, I was one of them. What better reason to hit Mickey Ds than to get more game pieces with my crispy fries? Extra-large, please, because there's an extra chance to participate!
McMillions' producers knew what they had in this story and Mathews' account of the events as they unfolded. Making the story even better is that Mathews made a mark on everyone around him with his infectious laugh and considerable wit.
If you'd imagine a young agent meeting with the McDonald's representatives sporting a suit so gold he gleamed like one of the famed arches, well, that's your guy, and that's how he "impressed" his bosses during that very meeting.
"It just seemed like this meeting just took forever. I don't even know if I was hungry. I might have been hungry TWICE in that meeting," Mathews laughingly recalls of that fateful meeting.
The stories about working with Mathews and carrying out an Argo-like mission to reveal the truth behind the "winners" of cash in the Monopoly game set the stage so well through the first two episodes that watching the rest of the series becomes imperative.
And, honestly, with Mathews the "star" of this production, any prolonged absense in the subequent episodes offer a bit of a let-down, but thankfully, Hernandez and Lazarte recognize that, as well, and they go to great lengths to make every episode stand on its own merits.
McMillions has first-hand accounts with the winners conned into working with "Uncle Jerry," who was believed to be the mastermind behind the entire scheme.
Many of them are caught up in an experience so foreign to them they couldn't have gotten themselves out of it even if they wanted to.
The sequence of events often unfurls with recreations of the FBI operations as we've become accustomed to on shows like Dateline or that play on ID Network. When they're highlighted by Mathews and his energetic personality, they work and are almost surreal.
But when they play behind a scarred "victim" of the scheme, such as Gloria Brown, a black woman lured to the conspiracy to throw off anyone who might begin suspecting the interconnectedness of the previous "winners," it makes you cringe a little bit.
Brown's life was torn apart because she grabbed at the carrot dangled before her without a full understanding of what her participation would mean.
And while she did so willingly, seeing Brown's actions come to life in the documentary doesn't hit the same notes as the recreations narrated by Mathews or other agents.
And it's when Brown speaks that you realize that as fun as it is to watch McMillions, lives were effected in ways we'll probably never be able to comprehend. Sure, Brown and others were as culpable as anyone by accepting a winning game piece that they didn't achieve legally.
But it's also easy to imagine that if life was handing you lemons and someone offered you a winning game piece that you, too, could make the same decision while also viewing it as a victimless crime -- one in which you ultimately become a victim through your own actions.
The documentary treatment of this saga is unlikely to be the last we'll hear of this story, but it's equally as unlikely that a fictional presentation could find an actor who could do SA Matthews the justice that he does himself in McMillions.
Still, McMillions is the latest in a string of documentaries that hit the cultural zeitgeist, and it wouldn't surprise me if it became as watched and admired as HBO's The Jinx.
You'll laugh as much as you would at any comedy and will be as emotionally attached to the "characters" in this real-life crime story as you would in any well-written drama.
More entertaining and moving than much of the scripted fare across the broad spectrum of entertainment, McMillions is reality television at its finest.
McMillions premieres tonight at 10/9c only on HBO.
Carissa Pavlica is the managing editor and a staff writer and critic for TV Fanatic. She's a member of the Critic's Choice Association, enjoys mentoring writers, conversing with cats, and passionately discussing the nuances of television and film with anyone who will listen. Follow her on Twitter and email her here at TV Fanatic.