Ashley Spurgeon is a lifelong TV fan — nay, expert — and with her recurring television and pop-culture column "And Another Thing," she'll tell you what to watch, what to skip, and what's worth thinking more about.
I’m sure I won several small fries and drinks from the McDonald’s Monopoly game promotion that ran from the late '80s to the early 2000s. My goal, of course, was to win a million dollars for doing basically nothing — the American Dream. But I was not destined to win any of the top-tier prizes, nor were you, because — for almost its entire run — the game had been taken over by a ring of thieves and fraudsters, and almost all the big winners were in on it.
HBO’s McMillions, the six-part documentary series about the bamboozled McDonald’s promotion, has been a chirpy, bright spot of viewing this winter. It’s amusingly digressive and snappily paced. But the best part is, by far, the characters — which is to say, the actual people who were involved in the scam. There are still two episodes left, and I haven’t totally spoiled myself on the finer points of the investigation, but this 2018 article from The Daily Beast is a very in-depth look at the whole mess, if you’re interested.
This docuseries has a little bit of everything from modern-day Americana: Everyone is broke, everything is a scam, everything else is a facade, and there are more than enough people willing to go on camera and lie about it all. Beyond the (seemingly intentionally) corny reenactments, the bulk of the show is present-day interviews with just about every major living participant in the crime (plus law enforcement counterparts), as well as — most interestingly — a healthy dose of video evidence compiled by the FBI. Once the feds got an anonymous tip about the scheme, they posed as a fake production company and interviewed the “winners” under the pretense of a new McDonald’s promotion, Where Are They Now? style.
Operation Final Answer (yes, a reference to game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire — the sting began in 2000) got the conspirators on camera, bald-face lying about their wins. I am not the kind of person who takes pleasure watching others squirm — one of many reasons I’m writing about TV shows and not working for the FBI. In fact, I find it excruciating: the flop-sweat, the clearly rehearsed nonsense stories of finding the game pieces, the obviously leading questions asked by the investigators.
Nevertheless, the people are the most interesting part of the show, because the crime itself is pretty straightforward — and frankly, easily solved. (Spoilers to come of a 20-plus-year-old crime.) A man named Jerome “Uncle Jerry” Jacobson, head of security for the marketing company hired by McDonald’s to run the Monopoly promotion, managed to steal the most valuable game pieces and ferret them to family, friends, acquaintances and eventually strangers — all for an up-front fee and percentage of the winnings, obviously.
At least one person in on the con, Gloria Brown, comes off as somewhat sympathetic — her crime comes more from desperation than greed. Others are less so, like publicity-hungry Colombo crime family member Gennaro “Jerry” Colombo, seemingly your classic con man. But everyone involved is portrayed like a real person, whether you like them or not. The closest comparison I can find for Robin Colombo, former wife of Jerry, is that she appears to be a real-life version of Sharon Stone’s Ginger from Casino — at least from Act 1 and Act 2. Red on red on red on red, she’s a a made-for-TV dame if ever there was one. Robin is a born storyteller, casually recounting for the cameras her and Jerry’s 1990s crime-times. Which ethnic slurs will she use and which won’t she? Boy, it’s a roller coaster to find out!
There’s peppy Amy Murray, a very loyal company creature at McDonald’s, and I’ve got to say, I’m not totally sold on the charm of motor-mouth Good Guy FBI Agent Doug Matthews: He has the chaotic Peter Pan energy of a preteen boy gettin’ high on his own supply of farts. But hey, it takes all kinds. I am fascinated by Heather Colombo, blasé crime wife, and her husband Frank Colombo — Jerry’s brother. Does Frank tie himself in absurdist semantic knots to justify his family’s criminality? Oh, you bet he does!
There are some casual personal asides I wish were followed up on: One FBI Agent mentioned being happy to work this case, more or less, because he wasn’t the bad guy. Another question: Did McDonald’s not do internal audits on vendors or contests? It’s noted how sales went up, up, up every time they ran the Monopoly promotion, so even with the money lost from the scams, the company surely broke even or better. With two episodes left, I’m not sure how much deeper the conspiracy will go. McMillions, TV documentary though it is, more than anything gives the feeling of a meandering true-crime narrative where the crime is less important or interesting than the people involved in it.