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Culture Documentary

Tim Boyle/Getty Images


Tim Boyle/Getty Images

Documentary

Stealing McMillions

Documentary series reveals how hucksters hoodwinked McDonald’s

A Happy Meal it’s not: The recent six-part HBO docuseries McMillions serves up the convoluted, unsavory, but engrossing story of the Monopoly game scam of the 1990s that duped America’s largest fast-food chain out of $24 million.

To boost sales, McDonald’s hired an outside marketing firm to run a game requiring people to collect peel-off Monopoly pieces to win cash and gifts. But in 2001, the FBI began investigating after an anonymous tipster claimed someone was rigging the game. The tip cited multiple winners within one family, with someone named “Uncle Jerry” masterminding the chicanery.

With a McFlurry of colorful background and recent interviews, clips, and reenactments, each episode ends with a tease and cliffhanger. The series eventually reveals whether anyone within McDonald’s was culpable and who the ringleader and his cronies were. Not until the final episode do we see how he stole game tokens from a supposedly secure system and finally learn the informant’s identity. 

FBI agent Doug Mathews, an affable smart aleck, chattily recounts much of how the fraud transpired and how agents stopped it. He apparently reveled in his role as a young undercover agent cooking up ideas to help solve the crimes, but etiquette lessons would help him tell his tale without profanity.

McDonald’s, more concerned about potential loss of its reputation than the money, worked quietly with the FBI to set up stings to con the cons into confessions. Perhaps because more than two decades have passed since the story broke, all the fraudsters seem quite willing to talk about their roles, including relatives of an Italian mafioso who helped run the ruse but died in a car crash.

A menu of interviews with FBI agents, an assistant U.S. attorney, and the scammers themselves evoke incredulity on many fronts, especially over how so many ordinary people could join the deception. They willingly paid for and accepted purloined game pieces from Uncle Jerry or his cohorts, then smiled about it on national TV when they won, with no evident misgivings.

The overwhelming and underlying rationalization seems to be that McDonald’s was awarding the prizes anyway, so what did it matter if someone “diverted” the money to someone else? Most of the fraudulent winners acknowledge they did wrong but leave the impression the real bummer was getting caught. The mention of any moral standard is glaringly absent. 

If viewers can stomach periodic bad language, including multiple F-bombs, watching this entertaining exposé may inspire a gut check, asking yourself what you’d do if someone proffered you a million hamburgled bucks.

—This story has been updated to correct the name of FBI agent Doug Mathews

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Netflix


Netflix

Documentary

Preventive care

A new documentary recounts how his son’s drug-related death inspired a pharmacist to investigate his murder—and an industry

The day you read this, approximately 125 Americans will die of an opioid overdose. One in 5 teenage deaths in 2016 in the United States was related to opioid addiction. Netflix’s new documentary, The Pharmacist, tells one man’s quest to make his son’s drug-related death prevent some of those deaths.

Pharmacist Dan Schneider was a regular family man living on the outskirts of New Orleans, raising his son and daughter. Danny Jr. was a regular teen with regular problems but a bright future. But the Schneiders’ world came crashing down when the police knocked on their door late one night in 1999: Someone shot and killed Danny Jr. in the Lower Ninth Ward, a troubled neighborhood and a common place to buy drugs.

Shock, disbelief, grief—viewers hear and see those raw emotions, through recordings Dan made soon after his son’s death and in more recent interviews. The scenes are poignant and powerful. The Schneiders were not even aware Danny Jr. was using drugs, or that he had been out that night.

Dan Sr. vowed to find out more about his son’s death and investigate his murder after growing disillusioned with the New Orleans Police Department. He developed a massive library of tapes chronicling his quest for justice, which ultimately resulted in a murder conviction. 

Dan Sr. returned to normal life as a pharmacist. But he noticed a disturbing trend: Doctors were prescribing OxyContin, a painkilling opioid, far more frequently and in higher doses than seemed necessary. Patients were dying of overdoses.

Schneider tracked down one particular doctor whose practice was little more than a pill mill addicts from hundreds of miles away visited. They camped out for days to get their prescriptions and returned as quickly as possible for refills. When federal agents moved too slowly, Schneider acted on his own. He pushed for the local medical board to remove the doctor’s license and won.

Meanwhile, other pill mills popped up all over the country, as OxyContin manufacturer Purdue Pharma continued marketing, despite evidence that it was far more addictive than initially advertised. Interviews with foul-mouthed but seemingly honest Purdue sales representatives provide more insight into the company’s aggressive marketing and seeming lack of care about the drug’s effects. Eventually Purdue Pharma, after selling an estimated $35 billion of OxyContin, faced lawsuits from states and counties across the country. The company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in September 2019.

The Pharmacist is a powerful story of how one man’s persistence and courage can make a difference. Viewers should be aware of some blasphemous and foul language.

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Aaron Rench, N.D. Wilson


Aaron Rench, N.D. Wilson

Documentary

Sound theology, rich cinematography

The Riot and the Dance: Water offers both

A giant water bug grabs a frog and injects it with enzymes that liquefy the hapless croaker’s innards. The aqueous insect then slurps dry its prey—an “amphibian-flavored Capri Sun”—casting the carcass away. A scene to teach the survival of the fittest? No, Isaiah 11. 

Dr. Gordon Wilson, narrating the spectacular new nature documentary The Riot and the Dance: Water (written by N.D. Wilson), yearns for the day the lion will lie down with the lamb. With a splash of wry humor, deep theology fills the deep Water.

The marine-biologist narrator and a cameraman dive into oceans, ponds, rivers, and swamps to film creatures of eye-popping form (literally) and function. Bold exegesis complements daring close-ups. Why do 60,000-pound humpback whales launch their massive frames out of the water? Because God gives them joy, like kids doing cannonballs at the pool. Turtles’ fascinating physiques cause Wilson to praise God for “His creative and amusing personality.”

Wilson acknowledges the “irreducible complexity” of creatures such as the octopus—with its three hearts and nine brains. Yes, God assigns every animal a role in its habitat, but Water is more than a science lab. God created all this because “it pleased Him” to do so.

As for us: “If God provides for the lowliest tube worm in Puget Sound,” Wilson says, “how much more will He provide for us made in His own image?”

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