Wahlburgers is the family business, but Mark Wahlberg couldn’t help but sink his teeth into a supersized McDonald’s Monopoly game scandal.
“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 McDondald’s logos, instead of my Wahlburger logos.”
The six-episode project, premiering at the Sundance Film Festival Tuesday and on HBO Feb. 3 (Mondays, 10 EST/PST) tells the 20-year-old story of the rigged fast food promotion, in which winning tickets were stolen and then sold to the “winners” for years, unbeknownst to the chain. And we’re not talking small fries. Prizes included a hefty $1 million, boats, and even a Dodge Viper.
Producers say McDonald’s was eventually swindled out of $24 million, but 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. While he believes “anything that usually comes easy is probably too good to be true,” 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.’ ”
But the actions were not without consequences for some of the prize “winners.” Some of these accomplices who turned in the game pieces were required to split the cash awarded with the masterminds 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. And they’re not necessarily villains.”
One $1 million “winner,” Gloria Brown, 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,” says Hernandez.
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 prompted multiple indictments on Sept. 10, 2001, the terrorist attacks the following day virtually erases them from news coverage.
Hernandez’s curiosity prompted a Freedom of Information Act request, which provided the names of the law enforcement officers involved. He received permission to speak to the FBI agents on the case, which he didin 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 character 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 with McDonald’s. “I had it in the closet,” he recalled 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.'” he remembers of his directive for the undercover operation. “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 certainly 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 following each episode, in which the directors discuss material that didn’t make it into the show.
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