“Nobody’s said anything to me yet,” the actor says of his family’s response to his new documentary series, “McMillion$,” joking, “It does feel a little bit weird seeing all of those McDonald’s logos, instead of my Wahlburger logos.”
The six-episode project, premiering Monday on HBO (10 EST/PST) tells the 20-year-old story of the rigged fast food promotion, in which winning tickets were stolen, then sold to the “winners” for years, unbeknownst to the chain. We’re not talking small fries. Prizes included a hefty $1 million, boats and even a Dodge Viper.
Producers say McDonald’s was swindled out of $24 million. An FBI agent in the series says that from 1989 to 2001, “there were almost no legitimate winners of the high-value game pieces” in the promotion. An anonymous tip relayed to the FBI in 2001 began to put the “Do not pass go” wheels in motion.
Wahlberg repeatedly uses the word “fascinating” to describe the saga and those involved. “Anything that usually comes easy is probably too good to be true,” he says, but he understands how tempting a game-winning piece could be: “If somebody comes to you and says, ‘Here, have a $1 million game-winning ticket,’ it’s pretty hard not to think, ‘Well, I’m not hurting anybody.’ ”
The actions were not without consequences for some of the prize “winners.” Some accomplices who turned in the game pieces were required to split the cash awarded with the plotters of the operation but were stuck with huge tax bills.
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James Lee Hernandez, who co-directed the docuseries with Brian Lazarte, describes the story as “a massive test of a moral compass in an individual.”
“First, getting into this, you think, ‘OK, there’s a criminal side to this. They’re criminals,’ and that’s all you think. And then you meet the people that actually did this, and you realize they’re humans, just like we are,” Hernandez says. “And they’re not necessarily villains.”
One $1 million “winner,” Gloria Brown, says she thought the opportunity was heaven-sent.
“Sometimes you have … the thing where you want to believe something’s true so bad, you’re willfully ignorant to what some of the circumstances around it really are,” Hernandez says.
Hernandez, who was “obsessed” with McDonald’s Monopoly game as a kid and worked for the franchise as a teen, discovered the scandal on Reddit in 2012. Although the FBI investigation brought multiple indictments Sept. 10, 2001, the terrorist attacks the following day virtually erased them from news coverage.
Hernandez made a Freedom of Information Act request, which provided the names of the law enforcement officers involved in the McDonald’s investigation. He spoke to the FBI agents in person in 2017.
Lazarte’s question whether the story warranted a docuseries was quickly answered. “It didn’t take long for us to really see that our (subjects) were incredibly rich and provided so much context and color,” he says.
One person who jumps on the screen is FBI Special Agent Doug Mathews, an integral part of the investigation.
Mathews, who says in the series that he’s “always looking for another fun ride,” may spark entertaining memes and tweets. Describing the agent who trained him, Mathews said he “has about as much personality as this piece of wood (a desk) right here.”
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To cope with an “extremely boring” part of the investigation, he donned a gold suit for a meeting. “I had it in the closet,” he recalls in the show, “and I thought this is a great opportunity to wear this. This is like a golden fry suit.”
A clip shared exclusively with USA TODAY conveys his personality.
“Just make it happen” was his directive for the undercover operation, he remembers. “I’m thinking to myself, one, ‘Oh, my God, really?’ And then two is, ‘Sweet.’ ”
Mathews and his colleagues went undercover, posing as crew members of “Shamrock Productions” to interview supposed “winners” about their good fortune. This allowed the FBI to capture the perpetrators’ lies on camera, building their case.
Mathews’ antics left an impression on Wahlberg.
“Let’s put it this way, we’re now trying to develop something else with him specifically,” he says. “That’s how much we all like him.”
An accompanying podcast will be released after each episode, in which the directors discuss material that didn’t make it into the show.
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