McWhat? [McMillions]

Midway through the first episode of McMillions I thought I was watching a mockumentary. It occurred right around the time when Agent Doug Matthews (one of the lead investigators) laughed for the first time. Right as he leaned forward, showed both rows of teeth in a donkey grin that curled his nose and wrinkled his forehead, right around then, I wondered if any of this was real. But then, the reality of the documentary settled in, and I discovered the perfection in the absurdity. Only a scam that robbed $25 million from McDonalds, could be so authentic and bizarre. In the midst of a flux of true crim dramas, McMillionsstands out for capturing a crime that feels relatable, with FBI agents and prosecutors who seem like dudes you could sling a few beers with, and criminals and mobsters that feel like they could be at the neighborhood barbecue. McMillions doesn’t go the regular route of true crime dramas, by showing the dark side of America, it shows America, and it happens to start in line at McDonalds.

McDonalds is a distinctly American place with iconic golden arches that coax American children in the backseats of mini-vans to beg their parents to turn into the drive-thru. But at the same time, they are not embraced in the same way as other notorious Americana like baseball, football, Ford, and Disney. It’s a bit… grosser than those things. Its unhealthy, fast, and cheap. No one feels like they made a good decision after nomming a Big Mac and fries and washing it down with a super-sized Diet Coke. It’s not an institution that we are proud is  at the core of our American identity. We don’t want our children growing up consuming double quarter pounders with cheese like baseball or Disney films… they just do. We vocalize our dislike for its unhealthiness and yet those golden arches still tantalize kids traversing American highways in all fifty states. Because there is the American Dream, as talked documented in history textbooks and discussed in politics. It spans centuries and serves as the narrative backbone of an entire country. And then there is the American dream, as experienced every day by actual Americans who have one lifespan to live and sometimes need to stop at McDonalds for a cheeseburger after a 12-hour workday and could do without your judgment thank you very much. McMillions is about the latter, in all its absurd and contradictory glory.

And it begins with an ADD FBI Agent from Jacksonville Florida, bored with investigating tax fraud, grabbing a sticky note off his partner’s computer monitor and making a phone call about an ‘Uncle Jerry.’ Agent Matthews, who tackles drunken beach-dwellers who steal worthless, giant cardboard million-dollar checks, wears golden French Fry colored suits to important FBI meetings with McDonalds, and who is constantly judging how much he wants to do something by how much it registers on his fun-meter, takes us on a wild ride that uncovers a plethora of people with absurd stories that all connect back to one-man, Uncle Jerry. He feels like the annoying guy we have all worked with. We hesitate to laugh when he is funny, for fear he will continue with everything that’s not. He does his own thing and fell ass-backwards into a career case even though others are much more deserving. And now he is in all his glory as HBO wants to hear his side of the story for the new documentary they are doing. Yet by the end of show, I leaned forward a bit every time he popped onto the screen. His are the moments I looked forward to the most. Maybe he was exactly the type of agent needed to make an investigation this absurd happen.

The documentary reenacted the investigation for the viewer with a standard cork-backed bulletin board with pictures and string connecting the conspirators like an investigation into the mob (more about that later I guess), and with shots of hard working ‘agents’ bent over tables covered in files and McDonald’s packaging. These scenes looked like a spoof of other documentaries, a tongue-in-cheek nod to the true crime melodrama that has hooked Americans. But over time, I realized that this was the reality. This was probably way closer to what these investigations are actually like. And this is the paradox of McMillions, the absurd and the human mingle together like fries in ketchup.

Marvin Braun (Uncle Jerry’s stepbrother) probably said it best, “If you told me to describe this story, I’d say, ‘Don’t believe it…but it’s true.’” Which made a total of zero sense to me when I first heard it, but with each interview of these painfully American people, with each bizarre fact or tale, I began to wonder “is any of this true?” None of them could be trusted, all of them are compromised, and the tales they tell compound the absurdity episode after episode.

For instance, the first episode explains how the big prize-winning Monopoly game pieces were printed and protected from cradle to the grave. They were printed at Dittler Brother’s printing press with 24/7 surveillance by both McDonalds and the marketing team, they were then stored in a room that needed two people with two separate keys to unlock (like a nuclear vault), for transportation they were placed in an envelope that was sealed with a special sticker and signed by the people  who watched the pieces placed in the envelope. They were then placed in a briefcase by two people required to stay at each other’s side until they arrived at a factory where a worker placed the pieces on McDonald’s packaging that was randomly disseminated onto the factory line and sent to restaurants across America. 

This prompted two questions… 

1. How ridiculous is that security for McDonald’s Monopoly? It seems like a satire of how something is protected.

2. How can anyone steal the pieces from that airtight security? 

The documentary then left me to ponder those questions until the last episode where it was resolved in an even more ridiculous manner. Apparently, Uncle Jerry would go to the bathroom with the briefcase, where the other guard (a lady) would not follow, and was able to open and reseal the packaging because he was accidentally mailed the special stickers used to seal the envelope. You have got to be shittin’ me. 

But the absurdity is counterbalanced by how American it feels. The pomp and circumstance of our consumer nature, the tenacity of those trying to get ahead. Their ingenuity in jobbing the system contrasting sharply with the backdrop of opportunity. Uncle Jerry scammed a total of $25 million dollars from McDonalds, and I have a hard time not considering it the most American white-collar crime of all time.

He was not able to do it alone though, and his ragtag crew of hucksters are more colorful than his scheming. He initially worked with a mobster (or at least everyone interviewed wants you to think he is), Jerry Colombo, to distribute the tickets to the ‘winners.’ Colombo is dead, and Uncle Jerry does not contribute an interview, so we are left to trust the narrative of Colombo’s broken wife Robin and his brother and sister-in-law, Frank and Heather. These three weave tales of game pieces in freezers, avoiding mob hits, fear of giving pertinent information, and build Jerry Colombo into a post-mortem Teflon Don. Obviously, there are lies and fabrications, but where is impossible to tell, and in a story like this, it might as well all be true. 

Frank was intent on making his brother and the mob present and dangerous. And he wants you to believe he was riding the lightning the entire time. He constantly smiled as he told ridiculous story after ridiculous story, as he hinted at being in mortal danger, and as he sided with his brother at every turn (including about the stripper church) and illegal act.  Every line he spoke felt ingratiating. Meanwhile his wife Heather sat by his side, looking confused and uncomfortable, never smiling and rarely speaking. Only concurring with Frank’s thoughts and nodding along in agreement. They wanted to speak La Cosa Nostra into existence. To be a part of that American legend that they were so obviously removed from. Case in point, they were being interviewed about white collar fraud against McDonalds for an HBO Documentary. And they were quite obviously using it to make their bones.

Robin, on the other hand, downplayed, deflected, and demurred. She was a victim in this scheme, losing her husband in death, her son in custody, and time in jail. She told her side, but it was influenced by her need to portray herself in the best possible light. She wanted to be viewed as the mother who cared for her son and the wife who loved her husband, not as the woman who supported her husband’s life of crime, was a fugitive of the law, and was unable to take care of her child because of her time in prison. For these three, this was an opportunity to do a different American action, to rewrite history in their favor, to change their role in the past. To look back on a life lived and fill in some of the blank spots with color. 

However, none of these three had quite the flair for interviewing, as AJ Glomb. The ex-drug dealer, who appears to be a gentle old man only to reveal himself as a remorseless and amoral con. By way of introduction to his involvement, he regaled us with a ridiculous story about taking drugs with friends in California and concluded the story by saying, “So that was my first thing with drugs. So how I got into selling them…” 

Glomb had previously jumped bail, done time in prison, and was just off of probation when he became enmeshed in the McDonald’s scam. The toughest part to watch in McMillions was the hurt and harm that remained in the wake of Uncle Jerry’s scheming. Workers were laid off, reputations were ruined, money was lost, families were broken. But AJ Glomb didn’t register any of that. He wanted to get his and to do so by any means. If he could profit from it, he was going to. And when asked if he would do it again, he answered, “Tomorrow…tomorrow…” and smiled.

But most of the scammers weren’t so heartless and cynical. Most were pretty normal people- the landscape of America. Gloria Brown was a single mother trying to make ends meet when offered, and then forced into, a less then beneficial proposition with Jerry Colombo. Dwight Baker was a Mormon real estate owner who got too greedy for his own good when he was afraid a work injury would hurt his bank account (or at least that is how he couches the story), and then took advantage of his foster son’s (George Chandler’s) hard earned wealth, to make more money for himself. Chandler is one of the most interesting cases. Both he and Dwight attest to his ignorance of the greater fraudulence of the deal, which leaves him guilty of a crime, but one everyone could see themselves doing. But it’s hard not to wonder (once again) about whether his ignorance is true. How is it possible to be told such a strange story (he was told he would be doing Dwight’s friend a favor by buying the game piece during a messy divorce) and not ask more questions? Not feel like it’s a bit too fishy?

True crime documentaries are investigative pieces. They dive into an obscure but intriguing story (check) and through first-hand accounts (kind of check) they reveal never before learned information (check) and the human side of the crime (double check). McMillions checks the boxes. But as each person tells their story, and each story piles on top of each other, as the web that was supposed to be neatly woven becomes a tangled knot, we stop looking for truth in the McDonald’s scam, and we start to look at the people involved. The absurdity is in the humanity. McMillions uses a crime to show us people. Very real people, that connect to the viewer. Their stories are absurd, but they are also real. Maybe not the facts of the case, but they are real in the telling. They are real in what they reveal about these people.

I felt like I was watching a uniquely American perspective on screen. And as the last episode rolled to a finish, and as the punishments (ridiculous things like paying $125 a month for someone who scammed millions) did not match the crime, it felt even more American- loathe to punish too harshly those involved in white collar crimes. Instead, the real consequences were in the lives affected by those on top. Gloria Brown, George Chandler, Robin Colombo, the kids of these people who never heard of McDonald’s Monopoly before it changed their lives forever. These people suffered the consequences. And as they got a chance to tell their story, to try and wrestle back control of a narrative that steam rolled them, I couldn’t help but believe their fantastical tale. I believe every word of it. It all was so absurd. I shouldn’t believe it, but I do.

The craziest part… I still don’t know if any of them have ever eaten at McDonalds. America…

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