The Big Conn Review: A Convoluted Story Tries To Make Light Of A Real Tragedy

Perhaps the most unpredictable trend to come out of the pandemic is the rise of "wacky" true-crime docuseries, with AppleTV+'s "The Big Conn" being just the latest in a line of "crazy-but-true" documentary TV shows that present real crimes with all the dignity and decorum of Paramount's "Bar Rescue." Produced by James Lee Hernandez and Brian Lazarte — the men behind the HBO true-crime series "McMillion$" — "The Big Conn" is the story of disgraced lawyer Eric C. Conn, who orchestrated the biggest social security scam in American history. 

Or did he? 

Even after watching all four hour-long episodes of "The Big Conn," I still don't know what happened — nor am I sure what the point of the series is. This is, at its core, a fascinatingly complex legal case that offers an admittedly horrifying look at just how broken the U.S. social security system is. The fact that Conn was so successful in scamming the American people out of — at a minimum — half a billion dollars (with seemingly little effort!) is downright shocking. What's worse, the sheer length of time that the con was allowed to continue — due to a combination of bureaucracy, inadequate oversight, and a healthy dose of apathy — is Kafkaesque. It's an oppressive nightmare in which government mechanism grinds down vulnerable, honest citizens, while a privileged few indulge in corruption, then skip away to bask in greener pastures.  

This is not the kind of story that is fun and zany, full of larger-than-life figures who beat the odds to pull off an unbelievable crime. It's an administrative hellscape from which many vulnerable Americans are still trying to escape. Trying to paint what happened in Eastern Kentucky as anything other than frustrating and tragic is not only a disservice to the many victims of Eric C. Conn and Judge David B. Daugherty — it's also just incredibly stupid.

A McMillion$ redux

"The Big Conn" is a documentary series that focuses on how Eric C. Conn conducted his social security scam and the events that led to his eventual (if much-delayed) downfall. The show features various interviews, archival footage, and dramatic reenactments to tell the story, all edited and scored to be as thrilling and exciting as possible. Although I would argue that this "fun" approach to true crime is largely a reaction to the explosive popularity of Netflix's 2020 series "Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness," "The Big Conn" is actually much more reminiscent of "McMillion$." This makes sense: the AppleTV+ series is literally being marketed as "from the directors of 'McMillion$." But on the other hand, these are vastly different stories — and shouldn't producers be able to adjust their approach to match tone and subject matter? 

For those who haven't seen it, "McMillion$" is a documentary series about a fraud involving the Mcdonald's Monopoly promotion. Essentially, throughout the '90s, there were little-to-no legitimate winners of the game's biggest prizes. It was exactly the kind of fraud that is almost unimaginable. Key to the scam was Jerome P. Jacobson, aka "Uncle Jerry," the Chief of Security at the company responsible for running the game, Simon Marketing. He essentially found a way to smuggle out winning tokens and had developed an underground network of people across the U.S. who would claim the prize and send him kickbacks. Unsurprisingly, the mafia was involved. In our own "McMillion$" review, Chris Evangelista notes that the story is told "with all the energy of a Hollywood comedy" — which works for such an admittedly bizarre true-crime case. The people here — Uncle Jerry, his crime-family connection  Gennaro "Jerry" Colombo, and even the FBI agent Doug Matthews — are borderline cartoonish. The lighthearted tone works. 

The problem is that "The Big Conn" doesn't have these types of characters to rely on — so it tries to make them, warping the basic story and sacrificing journalistic integrity in the process. Attempts are made to transform Conn into an outlandish, entertaining figure by repeatedly referring to his personal life; lots of time is spent on his 16+ failed marriages, his wild alcohol-fuelled parties, and unverified accounts from Conn's unpublished manuscript. At one point, the offscreen interviewer feeds a "rumor" to the interviewee — a dubious move for a documentary. Such constant (and often unsubstantiated) interruptions distract from the complicated ministerial structures that were exploited for the fraud, which underpins what actually happened. Arguably, that is the story — and it's hard to follow with all those interruptions of bikini babes and random (and likely inaccurate) anecdotes. 

The story "The Big Conn" instead tells — that of a small-town, big-ego lawyer who conspired with an alcoholic judge to defraud the American people for personal financial gain — isn't inherently compelling. Conn lacks the appeal of an anti-hero; he's not sympathetic like Joe Exotic could occasionally be, nor is he impressive the way Uncle Jerry or even notorious forger Mark Hofmann (the subject of Netflix's "Murder Among the Mormons") are. The lack of a clear motivation (was he greedy or just opportunistic?) makes it difficult to know how to feel about the man who "The Big Conn" is ostensibly about. The entire docuseries leans heavily on the corrupt lawyer as a source of fascination and entertainment, and he buckles under that weight. 

Sarah Carver and Jennifer Griffith deserve better

The true heroes of the story, Sarah Carver and Jennifer Griffith, are really mistreated here. Carver and Griffith were both employed by the Social Security Administration and were the first to raise the alarm bells about Judge Daugherty's extremely suspicious behavior. These two strong, competent women spent years gathering information, writing letters, and doing whatever they possibly could to expose the obvious corruption at the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review — all while being subjected to harassment and eventually fearing for their safety. But unlike the affable, charming Mason Tackett, who *checks notes* wrote a rap song once, Carver and Griffith don't get a dramatic slow-motion walk sequence, or shots of them standing powerfully by local landmarks — they don't even get individual interviews. They're mostly filmed sitting at a dining table while holding mugs. That's how you present some little old lady offering background context — not two people who should be the main characters in this story.

The "musician" Tackett is essentially a random local guy with almost no ties to the main story, yet he gets filmed in at least three different locations and is featured more prominently in the marketing than the two women responsible for exposing Conn. Similarly, Damian Paletta, who wrote about Conn and Judge Daugherty in a piece for The Wall Street Journal, offers a running commentary throughout — even though his involvement in the story arguably ended after he published his piece. Conversely, Carver and Griffith were instrumental to the case for years. They testified at the hearing. They both lost their cushy government jobs because of this whole ordeal. At one point, Conn and a corrupt judge had paid someone to follow Carver and try to get her fired. So why are they presented repeatedly as — for lack of a better term — busy-body Karens?

Is it because they're women?

In a situation like this, you always want to offer the benefit of the doubt. Maybe there was a scheduling conflict and that's why they were only filmed in the one, very low-key location (a home). Maybe they were uncomfortable being on camera and wanted to be together. Still, there are countless choices throughout the four episodes that subtly undermine them and their contribution to exposing the scam. For example, the journalist Paletta at one point "praises" them, condescendingly saying what they did was remarkable and comparing them to Erin Brockovich. It's a well-meaning statement that's painfully patronizing. Brockovich was a single mom with zero law experience when she helped on the landmark Pacific Gas & Electric Company case. Carver was an SSA senior technician and Griffith, an SSA Master Docket Clerk. They were hardly clueless. They were professionals who went above and beyond to do their job, and they deserve to be painted as such. Paletta's statement is bad enough, but it's worse the directors chose to include it. 

A tone-deaf doc

As I get older, I get pricklier, and there are certain irritations that really get under my skin. Media that implies a low-intelligence audience is a major one; films that force spectacle where a bombastic touch serves only to distract the viewer is another. Perhaps the most egregious sin, however, is content that betrays the creators' own prejudice, particularly regarding gender — like a writer who reduces female roles to practically inanimate objects, or a director whose shots linger on the heroine's sumptuous derrière just long enough to feel a bit icky. "The Big Conn" — for all of its efforts to be "hip" and "fun" — manages to commit all three crimes against documentaries. What a hat trick.

Either the creators didn't understand the inner workings of Conn's scam, or they didn't care. Or both. Regardless, the end result is that "The Big Conn" feels all style and no substance — and frequently, that "style" feels completely out of touch with the story being told. SO much of the roughly four-hour runtime is extraneous content, like titillating personal details or extended, dramatic scenes used for tone. Yet, so little of the runtime is spent investigating and explaining what actually happened. 

When the series' focus shifts to how depressingly devastating the effects of Conn's actions were for his former clients — vulnerable, low-income people who did nothing wrong yet were punished as thieves themselves — it's a whiplash-inducing tonal change. These are real people who had their disability benefits ripped away without notice. As a viewer, you're supposed to feel sad and outraged, but only for a hot minute. It's just a temporary layover in "Sad Town" before recounting more hilarious anecdotes. That Conn — such a rascal.

"The Big Conn" premieres globally on Apple TV+ on Friday, May 6, 2022.