The FBI has taken a beating under President Trump, who has regularly criticized the agency, going so far as to call some of its investigators “human scum.”
That hasn’t done much for FBI morale, but its image gets perhaps a sorely needed boost in one of this year’s most-honored true crime series, HBO’s McMillion$. The six-part series, directed by James Lee Hernandez and Brian Lazarte, carefully reconstructs how the FBI busted a stunningly brazen and elaborate fraud: the rigging of McDonald’s popular Monopoly game promotion.
“We weren’t surprised to discover the FBI could be hardworking, doing a good job,” Lazarte tells Deadline. “There’s probably 80 to 90 percent of cases that we, the public, don’t know anything about…We really appreciated that this was a story we actually could tell, and that we could learn about the intricacies of how agents work collectively, how they introduce new ideas…and crack this.”
McMillion$ earned five Emmy nominations, including Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Series, and recognition for music composition, picture editing and sound editing. Hernandez and Lazarte are also nominated for writing the series.
The tale they tell unfolds like a procedural. It began in 2001 when the FBI field office in Jacksonville, Florida received a tip suggesting the Monopoly game—which offered customers the hope of winning everything from boats, cars, houses, or a grand prize of $1 million—wasn’t on the up and up.
“This lead turns out to be that three people who all live in the same area…who are related to each other, have won,” Lazarte explains. “What are the chances? That’s impossible.”
Young G-man Doug Mathews took an interest in the case—as Hernandez puts it, the agent realized, “Hey, that sounds more fun than what I’m working on.” After getting his superiors on board, Mathews came up with an undercover scheme, “posing as a film production company, like a Publishers Clearing House style, where they’d show up to do a commercial at some of these [supposed] winners’ houses…and tell their story on camera,” Lazarte recalls. “These were incredibly creative ruses to basically suss out whether or not people were telling the true story or not” about how they came into possession of a winning game piece.
“It was so evident that these people were lying that [the FBI] is like, ‘Okay, there’s definitely a case,’” says Hernandez. The minute the phony camera crew left a winner’s house, the suspect generally called someone else involved in the conspiracy—and the FBI wiretapped those conversations.
“They get on the phone immediately afterwards and call someone who is somehow connected with it,” Hernandez notes. “They’re confirming that this whole thing is a lie. And so it keeps on building…The mob gets involved with it at a certain point…The whole story was stranger than fiction. We kept finding ourselves just being like wow, this gets bigger, and bigger, and bigger.”
At first the FBI didn’t know if anyone within the McDonald’s corporation was implicated. As McMillion$ exposes, the fraud ultimately was traced to an ex-cop who worked security for a marketing firm hired by McDonald’s to coordinate the Monopoly promotion. McDonald’s wound up agreeing to run the game one more time at the FBI’s request to catch the perpetrators in the act.
To tell that part of the story, Hernandez and Lazarte needed McDonald’s cooperation, which wasn’t easy to obtain.
“We had tried to get McDonald’s to participate early [on], and they initially declined, and then through efforts of writing letters, and just asking them to at least meet us and hear us out, we were able to explain to them why it was important for them to be involved,” Lazarte remembers. “At the 11th hour they finally came around and said, ‘Okay, we’ll do it.’”
The filmmakers also convinced several of the people who redeemed fraudulent game pieces to tell their stories on camera—some of them speaking for the first time in depth. They used archival news reports to help flesh out the story, but with many key moments of the investigation never having been filmed or photographed, they settled on an additional technique—recreations.
“There were so many great cinematic stories and portions to this entire thing that you needed to experience it. Just having someone talk about it wouldn’t do the story any justice,” Hernandez insists. “We just looked at it like [viewers] have to see that. And, unfortunately, the FBI doesn’t walk around with cameras in their office, so the only way to actually put people in that headspace and in that room was to be able to shoot reenactments.”
When the series debuted on HBO in February it hooked viewers’ attention, absorbing them in the twists of the case and the personalities of the FBI agents, prosecutors and the fraudsters they took down—some of whom come off as sad sacks exploited by the alleged ringleader, the shadowy “Uncle Jerry.”
“We’re beyond grateful to be in this position where so many people have seen it, and responded to it, and liked it, and somehow enough people to give us five [Emmy] nominations.” Lazarte exclaims. “It was a really incredible experience.”
In a sense, Hernandez began researching the story as a teen.
“When I was 16…my dad told me to get a job. It was like, well, I get free food if I work at McDonald’s, so here we go. And it was during the time of the McDonald’s Monopoly game,” Hernandez shares. “I definitely ate at McDonald’s a lot—I mean, whenever my mom or my grandma would allow me to—and played the game as much as humanly possible.”
Now the directors are involved in another contest—the one that determines Emmy winners.
“We’re obviously hopeful that we can win. If we can win all five [categories], that would be amazing,” Lazarte admits. “We’ll put it out there in the universe and hope that people vote for us, because this was a labor of love, but it’s also a really important story. And even though it’s got a lot of fun and comedy to it, [there’s] the moral lesson—how greed can really permeate so many different people.”
Lazarte adds, “There is something to be said about that in the society that we live, that your actions really have consequences, and what might seem like a harmless act—all these people who…claimed pieces never thought that this would affect them in the way that it did, they’re still dealing with it today.”
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