With 'McMillion$,' HBO shows how not everybody can be Netflix

Hit Netflix series such as "Cheer" and "Don't F**k With Cats" are marking an evolution of documentary storytelling, but not everyone can keep up

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

Everybody wants to be Netflix. 

Not because of the Oscars, where the streaming giant whiffed and won two statues off of 24 nominations, including a zero-for-10 showing by Martin Scorsese's "The Irishman."

Gabi Butler in the Netflix series "Cheer."

Rather, because of its streaming documentary series, where a new sensation seems to pop up, out of the blue, every few weeks.

The latest beneficiary of its golden touch is "The Pharmacist," which premiered last week, and centers on a small-town pharmacist doing his part to combat the opioid epidemic. Last month it was "Cheer," about the national champion cheerleading squad from a small Texas junior college, and in December it was "Don't F**k With Cats: Hunting an Internet Killer," a hugely addictive three-part series about a team of internet sleuths who tracked a serial killer using online clues.

But not everybody can be Netflix, as HBO is proving with its drawn-out docu-series, "McMillion$."

"McMillion$" tackles the scandal you never knew existed inside McDonald's Monopoly sweepstakes. It looks like a Netflix series and feels like a Netflix series. 

But it's missing the mark, and shows the ways that Netflix has marked an evolution of the documentary form, both for better and for worse. 

Beginning with Netflix's original documentary sensation, "Making a Murderer," the streaming platform has capitalized on serialized long-form storytelling, breaking up big stories into easily digestible one-hour chunks. 

No one has time for movies anymore, because who has two consecutive hours to spare? But when something like "Cheer" comes along, miraculously viewers are able to find the time to take six hours to binge-watch an entire series. Funny how that works. 

That's the power of a good story, especially when coupled with social peer pressure. "Cheer" or "Cats" would not have become the sensations they turned into without friends, family members and co-workers prodding others to watch them — "what do you MEAN you haven't watched 'Cheer' yet?" — which has made Netflix the modern equivalent of NBC's Thursday night "Must See TV" block of shows in the 1990s: if you're not watching, you're out of the loop. 

That these shows manage to arrive without hype or fanfare is also a part of their charm. They all feel like genuine word-of-mouth hits, and there's a feeling of being in on the ground floor with them when you're watching. 

From an artistic point of view, the breadth of their storytelling invites viewers in much more than, say, a two-hour documentary. "Cheer" would not have the same impact as a two-hour feature; the six-hour run time allows viewers to get to know the individuals, dig into their stories and then — spoiler alert — relish their championship once they get to Daytona.

And because of that time investment, when you see Jerry from "Cheer" doing red carpet interviews for "Ellen" at the Oscars, you feel happy for the guy, like you would if it was your own friend out there living his best life.

Same thing for "Cats," which told such a wild story that it justified its three-hour run-time. 

That's not the case with "McMillion$," which has felt bloated from the start. 

The first episode went off on odd tangents, overindulging a self-satisfied FBI agent and exploring story threads that didn't lead anywhere. By episode two, "McMillion$" revealed it was the mob that was behind the job. So where will the next four episodes go? 

"McMillion$" feels like a victim of the new system: It was probably a tight two-hour story that has been stretched out to fit into a six-hour timeframe. It's HBO trying to be Netflix, and failing.

As documentaries shift and evolve to fit the way we consume them, the story needs to be the driver, not the medium. 

Long story short, not every story needs to be long. Efficiency still matters. It doesn't matter how long a story is if nobody makes it to the end.