Sunday, February 19, 2023

American Experience: Ruthless—Monopoly’s Secret History

It originated as a device to promote Henry George’s economic philosophy that was popularized by Quakers, but it is now a shining symbol of capitalism. The ironic history of the best-selling Parker Brothers board game is very incompletely told in writer-producer-director Stephen Ives’ Ruthless: Monopoly’s Secret History, which premieres tomorrow night on PBS, as part of the current season of American Experience.

Ives does not start at the beginning. Instead, he chronicles the research of Ralph Anspach, an economics professor, who fought the cease & desist litigation launched against his “Anti-Monopoly” spoof board game. Ives never mentions Anspach fought on behalf of Israel during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and served in the U.S. Army, stationed in the Philippines, which would have made him a much more sympathetic figure for a lot of viewers.

To undercut the patent of the supposed “inventor,” Charles Darrow, who sold the game to Parker Brothers, Anspach uncovered the game’s folk origins. Probably, the first incarnation was created by Lizzie Magie, an ardent follower of Henry George.

The history of Monopoly is pretty interesting, but Ives’ scope is quite narrow. He never discusses the evolution of the so-called “Monopoly Man” into a recognizable character in his own right. Nor does he explore recent developments, like the popular McDonalds Monopoly game, which was embroiled in a scandal documented in HBO’s multi-part
McMillions. Frankly, this really isn’t the Monopoly story. It is the story of Anspach’s “Anti-Monopoly.”

That would be fine, as long as
American Experience announced it properly. The problem with Ruthless is the complete absence of diverse opinions. Every single one of Ives’ talking heads disparages the creative power of capitalism. Over and over again, we hear there is no such thing as an even starting line in America. That is their opinion—and when we hear as often as we do in Ruthless, it becomes dull and tedious.

Honestly, it is easy to defend Darrow. Nobody else was marketing Monopoly, so why shouldn’t he try? Darrow was unemployed during the Great Depression, with a special needs child. Initially, he took all the risks self-producing his own copies before selling the rights to Parker Brothers. He saved the company, its employees, and his family from ruin, so why does
Ruthless consider him a bad guy?

Ives desperately needed someone like Charles Payne to extoll Monopoly as way for young players to understand risk-taking. (That’s just a for instance, but Payne’s lively commentary definitely would have added a lot energy and balance.) After all, the game only gets good when there is a lot of leveraging and side-deals going on.

Sadly, this is not just an issue for
Ruthless. Recently, PBS documentary programming has increasingly lacked balancing editorial voices. The history of Monopoly and Anti-Monopoly are both interesting, but it should have been presented from more perspectives. Instead, Ives offers viewers a monopoly of viewpoints. Not recommended, because it is too polemical and not really what it presents itself to be, Ruthless: Monopoly’s Secret History airs tomorrow night (2/20) on PBS.