Beloved Monopoly Game Takes A Hit In 'Ruthless' Doc

Monopoly must be the greatest of all board games because even The Greatest himself, Muhammad Ali, loved the game.

The evidence is right before our eyes in the above photo in which the fun-loving boxing champion is seen with eyes transfixed as he contemplates the purchase of another hotel or house on a landmark avenue in Atlantic City, as his children lovingly watch his every move.

But now, the board game of Monopoly enjoyed by millions ever since it came out in 1935 is about to take a hit in a new documentary coming to PBS next month.

Premiering Monday, February 20, and titled “Ruthless: Monopoly’s Secret History,” the documentary means to tell “The Real Story Behind America’s Most Popular Board Game,” according to a subhead on a recent PBS press release about the show. 



This documentary might represent a search for the truth, but it might also be considered an assault on fun. And that’s no fun at all!

Even the PBS press release acknowledges, or at least makes the claim, as noted above, that Monopoly is “America’s most popular board game.”

Perhaps the word “fun” is not even to be used now, but replaced by something “emotion-neutral” such as the word “experience,” for example.

Thus, one might say: “Playing Monopoly the other day was an experience for me” instead of “Playing Monopoly the other day was fun for me.”

As it happens, this new Monopoly documentary is a presentation of PBS’s long-running “American Experience” series of American history docs, many of which are among the best documentaries ever aired on TV.

Before continuing, a caveat: I have not yet watched the show because it is not yet available for preview. The opinions expressed in this TV Blog are derived solely from the press release about the show that arrived in my inbox. 

But in the absence of a screener to watch, a press release can suffice because it serves the purpose of positioning a TV show for journalists. 

“[Monopoly] is an exhilarating game of no-holds-barred competition and brutal domination of your opponents, a celebration of greed and accumulation of wealth with only one player standing at the end,” the press release says.

“It may be only a game,” the release continues, “but the popularity of Monopoly speaks volumes about who we are and what we value.”

If I may, a couple of dissenting opinions: First, I do not recall feeling exhilaration when playing Monopoly during my formative years long ago. My memory of it is that it could be kind of dull and the games took a very long time.

The “no-holds-barred” nature of the competition and the “brutal domination” that resulted from it are also lost on me. To me, it was just a game the family played to pass the time on a rainy day or a cold Sunday afternoon in January.    

I don’t remember any celebrations of greed, the accumulation of wealth or anything else either -- not even when somebody would pass “Go” and earn $200. 

And what does this board game say exactly about “who we are and what we value” -- in “volumes,” no less?

The implication is that when it comes to business dealings such as the purchasing of little plastic houses with play money, “we” (I guess meaning “Americans”) value “no-holds-barred competition” with the aim of brutally dominating those who would dare seek to place one of those hard-plastic doohickeys on a board square labeled Baltic Avenue before we do.

On the question of who we are and what do we value, my answer is quite different and a lot simpler: We Americans are a board game-loving people who value the family fun to be had playing Monopoly -- which is just a game, not more than one.

And yet, the press release describes “America’s favorite board game” as “a love letter to unbridled capitalism and -- for better or worse -- the impulses that make our free-market society tick.” 

The press release avers that the very creation and marketing of Monopoly was itself an exercise in “unbridled” capitalistic greed and outright robbery.

“Behind the myth of the game’s creation is an untold tale of theft, obsession and corporate double-dealing,” the press release says. Oh, my. No wonder Dad always won!

According to the press release, the documentary will imply, suggest or blatantly accuse the Parker Brothers – George, Charles and Edward -- of commandeering a board game concept invented by someone else and then making millions on it.

What’s next? An “American Experience” documentary revealing that the Smith Brothers didn’t invent cough drops?

To give it its due, even sight unseen, the Monopoly documentary may actually present a persuasive case that the Parker Brothers engaged in “double-dealing” to claim or even seize ownership of the Monopoly brand.

I look forward to watching it with “unbridled” enthusiasm.

Photo courtesy of Steve Schapiro/Corbis via Getty Images, provided by PBS and GBH Boston.

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