2020, TV

McMillions (2020)

This is a very entertaining documentary about the infamous McDonald’s Monopoly scam which suffers a bit from Netflix-style true crime documentary series bloat and a rather a major oversight. But it’s a crazy story, it’s full of characters, and it’s funny.


So if you don’t know about the scam, it’s a fascinating story. Even having read an in-depth article about it a few years ago, I was still very interested in how it worked and the investigation of it. And the way they reveal everything is really well done.

This series is just chock full of characters, which is one of the main reasons it succeeds as much as it does. One of the FBI agents is a character and, as you might expect, many of those involved in the scam are also absolute characters. The filmmakers wisely allow them to talk and don’t try too hard – until the last episode – to tell us what to think. Some of these people are absolutely not telling the full truth and the series is content to let us try to figure that out.

Though there is bloat, and this could easily be a few hours shorter, you don’t really feel it much until the end. In most cases, the additional information about the various characters is entertaining enough to warrant inclusion, even if it’s not germane to the case. (For example, Glomb’s introduction to drugs.)

But the series does have a pretty big issue which keeps me from giving it higher marks. And that issue is the inability of law enforcement, the state, or the filmmakers to question what exactly was the point of all this.

Every day in the United States thousands of people are scammed. Many of these people are as desperate as Gloria Brown or more so. The US government devoted an absolute ton of resources to ensure that a man who was kinda sorta defrauding a gigantic company would go to jail. It’s money that McDonald’s would not have missed, since it was going out anyway. And it’s worth wondering if the citizens of the United States wouldn’t have been better served by the FBI going after some other scam instead of this one. Sure, it’s easy to see how much these cops enjoyed this case, and that’s probably quite important. But it does feel like a lot to devote to such a scam. (It’s a little reminiscent of how the federal government and states will prosecute people cheating private casinos.)

And then there’s the bigger question. Jacobson was taking money that was going to be given away and diverting it from people who would get it due to to luck to those who would get it because they knew somebody who knew him. So, it’s fraud within a broad definition of fraud. But it’s a pretty mild form of fraud compared to so much of what we see. But sure, Jacobson, broke his employer’s trust and he broke McDonald’s trust and he turned a seemingly fair (private, not public) game into a scam. But the prosecution of Jacobson and the 52 other people who won money from this scam ruined way more lives. People lost their jobs who had nothing to do with the scam. And those that Colombo convinced to participate in his version of the scam went into debt and then went to jail (or at least went on probation). As Jenn said, everyone (except the government) would have been better off if McDonald’s had discovered the problem in-house and just convinced Simon Marketing to fire the guy. I’m not for a second saying that people who commit crimes shouldn’t be prosecuted only that, in this case, the consequences of the prosecution appear far more reaching than the actual crime (if you think it was a crime).

And my problem with the series is that nobody acknowledges any of this. (Nor do they acknowledge the weirdly disproportionate punishments for the participants in the documentary.) Though this is an absolutely fascinating story, and though there are lots of interesting people involved, the fact that that everyone wants to pin this solely on this one man’s greed seems to miss a major aspect of this story: McDonald’s was giving the money away anyway and the prosecution of this crime ruined (or deeply affected) many people’s lives. Shouldn’t that at least be discussed?


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