true crime

Doug Mathews of McMillions Is America’s Showboat Sweetheart

Special Agent Doug Mathews in HBO's McMillions.
Special Agent Doug Mathews: The man, the myth, the laugher-at-his-own-jokes. Photo: HBO

There are a lot of fascinating characters in McMillions, the six-part HBO docuseries about the McDonald’s Monopoly scam.

There’s Robin, the red-haired, dolled-up ex-wife of gangster Jerry Colombo and a woman who once, in her words, “threatened 30 goons.” There’s Gloria Brown, the otherwise ethical single mother who got roped into the scheme and in over her head but had enough perspective to note that the best part of committing fraud was getting to meet Sherman Helmsley, which is 100 percent how I would feel if I had gotten dragged into this mess. And there’s A.J. Glomb, a man who chats amiably in his kitchen about the crimes he’s committed and how his run in Europe as a fugitive from justice ended after he (oops) shipped a Ferrari to the United States.

These and other figures in McMillions, which came to a close Monday night, are fascinating characters. Yet somehow, not one of them is quite as memorable as Doug Mathews, the FBI special agent who is simultaneously interested in seeking justice and making sure the needle on his so-called “funmeter” is always activated. What kind of person talks about having their own funmeter? Doug. Special Agent Doug.

Special Agent Doug has become a source of fascination for many during the six weeks that McMillions has been airing. Uproxx dubbed him “the best character on TV right now.” At least one person on Reddit thinks he’s “a star in the making.” Mark Wahlberg, one of the producers of McMillions, clearly agrees: He told Ryan Seacrest that he is trying to “do a show with him.” Wahlberg also expressed interest in playing him in a feature film about the McDonald’s Monopoly scam that’s being developed by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon.

No offense to Wahlberg, but I think Matthew McConaughey could do Special Agent Doug some justice. In the first episode of McMillions, when he says in his Southern twang that he’s “always looking for a fun ride,” I was honestly waiting for him to follow that up with an “All right, all right, all right!” Brad Pitt could pull it off, too: I get some serious “Brad in Burn After Reading, but smarter” vibes from him. (In truth, assuming the movie is set in the early 2000s, all three of them are technically too old for the role.)

The first thing that stands out about Special Agent Doug is that he’s shameless, but generally harmless. He brags about showing up to a meeting with McDonald’s executives in a suit that matched the color of the golden arches. Of course he describes it as “a golden fry suit,” because why say a suit is merely yellow when you can describe it as french fry-colored? He also repeatedly begged his FBI superiors to let him spearhead an undercover operation, which they eventually did, with minimal training, giving him permission to pretend to direct a McDonald’s promotional video featuring winners of the Monopoly contest. His response to getting that gig: “1) Oh my God, really? 2) Sweet.” I have never spent any time in Special Agent’s Doug’s presence, but I guarantee you that he says “sweet” at least 15 times a day.

Sure, Special Agent Doug comes across as a cocky showboat. You can tell he’s very proud to have been the guy who snagged the Post-It off of his older colleague’s desk that got this whole McDonald’s Monopoly investigation rolling. He’s even more proud to have been the guy who tackled a drunken moron who grabbed an oversized fake McDonald’s check, which the FBI presented to one of the schemers during the fake video Mathews was “directing” — though he does note, somewhat humbly, that he and his colleagues were able to catch him because “he was hammered and we were not.” I’m going to go out on a limb and say that was probably not the first time Special Agent Doug tackled someone who was hammered.

That cockiness would be off-putting if it weren’t accompanied by the absurd way he laughs at his own jokes — he looks both amused and constipated at the same time, which makes you chuckle even if what he said was only mildly funny — and, of course, if his cockamamie undercover plan hadn’t worked. But it did. This is another reason why Special Agent Doug is so likable: He breaks the rules in an organization that is supposed to be buttoned-up and following standard procedure at all times. The authority-flouting colorful rebel who surprises the suits by getting things done is a classic, beloved cultural character. Bill Murray built his entire career on playing guys like that. (Before you ask, in addition to being too old, Bill Murry could not play Special Agent Doug because Murray’s energy is way too low-key. Special Agent Doug radiates a desire for an audience, whereas Bill Murray never really seemed to care if you were watching.)

But Special Agent Doug is not a pure hero. In episode five, McMillions flashes back to the moment when he accidentally faxed a massive document that outlined the entire investigation to a Greenville, South Carolina, newspaper instead of the Greenville branch of the FBI. Of course, Special Agent Doug says he didn’t do it. “It doesn’t matter who did it,” he claims, which is exactly what people say when they did something dumb. Then he adds that he never uses speed-dial when he faxes documents, which is how you know for sure that he did it. Also, prosecutor Mark Devereaux says Special Agent Doug made the faxing blunder, and he has less reason to lie about it than Special Agent Doug does. The fact that he made such a Coen Brothers movie-style blunder only makes the guy more hilarious.

So, to recap: Special Agent Doug is an arrogant show-off who makes dumb mistakes that don’t lead him to being fired, and then he lies about them. My tolerance for this guy should be minimal at best. I see white men lying all day and every day when I watch the news. I get my fill of cocky blowhards running their mouths every time I flip on ESPN during a weekday. What makes Special Agent Doug so, well, special?

He actually does seem to be good at his job, the fax incident aside. Without him, the McDonald’s Monopoly investigation would never have broken open as widely as it did. You can argue that we’d all be better off if he had devoted the same enthusiasm to the medical fraud cases he deemed “boring,” and you’d be making an excellent point. Still, he cracked into a major fraud operation, thanks to his persistence and unconventional methods. That’s not nothing. You can tell his colleagues admire him, even though they’ve all probably cursed up a word cloud of profanities about him on numerous occasions.

The other thing about Special Agent Doug — and I believe this is the chief reason for his appeal — is that he seems to always be having fun. He had fun working on the McDonald’s case, he made work fun for other people, and he’s having a blast telling the story of how it all went down. If we’re going to listen to a storyteller tell a story, at the very least, we want to have a good time. Special Agent Doug tells this particular story in a way that is very entertaining. It’s really as simple as that: Special Agent Doug is always looking for a fun ride. He knows exactly how to take us on one, too.

Doug Mathews of McMillions Is America’s Showboat Sweetheart