If you’ve been jonesing for scandalous music-based soap since Empire ended, then Fox might just have what you need, albeit in a different genre. Monarch is about a country-music dynasty and how much control its matriarch had over it. That matriarch is played by none other than Susan Sarandon.
MONARCH: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
Opening Shot: A man in a cowboy hat opens a gun cabinet and pulls out a shotgun. He drives out to a wooded area in his vintage pickup truck. “A Roman never forgets a friend… or an enemy,” he says, right before he shoots.
The Gist: Three months earlier, Albie Roman (Trace Adkins) is at a press conference with his wife, Dottie Cantrell Roman (Susan Sarandon). She’s getting a lifetime achievement award at the CMAs. During the press conference, a reporter asks Dottie about a report that she’s terminally ill. Albie responds by punching the reporter out.
But the report wasn’t wrong; Dottie is dying, though she looks healthy and robust and seems to have a number of months to live, and she’s been making plans about the legacy she’ll leave behind. First, there’s her legacy as a performer; she tells her oldest daughter, Nicolette (Anna Friel) that she’s ready to finally step out from her shadow, she still isn’t gaining any interest as a solo act separate from her parents. Younger daughter Gigi (Beth Ditto) is more interested in being a mom and running her bar with her wife Kayla (Meagan Holder).
Most important is the family’s record label, Monarch Records; she handpicked her son Luke (Joshua Sasse) to be the corporation’s CEO, a choice Albie was never in favor of. After the CMA Awards, a huge family concert is coming up, which Dottie sees as her last hurrah, which is why she asks Nicky to help her do something after the concert that Nicky is completely against.
What Shows Will It Remind You Of? Monarch is basically Empire, but just taking place in a different music genre. It’s certainly pulpier and soapier than Nashville ever was.
Our Take: Monarch, created by Melissa London Hilfers with Jon Feldman as its showrunner, was supposed to premiere in January, but FOX decided to pull it at the last minute and hold it until the fall season. We don’t think it was because of quality issues, but because of the fact that they had a soapy show with wide appeal on their hands. After watching the first couple of episodes, though, we wonder if they didn’t have some issues with the show.
Let’s get the Susan Sarandon question out of the way first: Did she really commit to being a main cast member on a network series? That usually requires a multiple-year commitment for 22 episodes each year. She doesn’t seem to be in the stage of her career to make such a commitment. Well, without spoiling anything, that question will be answered for you by the end of the first episode, and if you think about it, it’ll make a lot of sense.
But Sarandon dominates the first episode, and it’s pretty jarring seeing the Oscar winner in scenes with anyone but Friel. Adkins basically growls and sneers through his role as the family patriarch, and Ditto and Sasse are much more melodramatic than Sarandon is. Friel, whose Texas accent feels so effortless you start to forget she’s a Brit, is the only one who holds her own with Sarandon’s dominating presence.
It’s pretty obvious that the show is actually going to run through Friel, as her character struggles with aging out of her opportunity to break out with her own career, a husband that constantly cheats on her, and the real possibility that she may never emerge from her mother’s shadow. Her story is really the only one that’s really got any more depth than your standard nighttime soap opera tropes, from the children who seek approval from their parents to illicit romances to nefarious business practices. The possibility that Sarandon’s presence won’t be nearly as dominant after the first episode means what’s left becomes pretty shallow and tiresome.
That being said, though, we’ve seen Yellowstone ride this formula to massive hit status over the last few years, so maybe Fox knew what it was doing when it held the show back for 8 months.
Sex and Skin: It’s a network show, so any sex or skin will be talked about, but very restrained.
Parting Shot: Back to that wooded area three months later. Albie is digging a hole and pushing a body in. “Rest in peace,” he sneers as he throws dirt on the body to fill the hole.
Sleeper Star: Obviously Ditto is in the cast because of her amazing voice, which is on display during the family concert scene.
Most Pilot-y Line: “He’s lucky he’s not sucking crumpets through a straw right now,” says Gigi after Nicky tells her about her husband cheating on her again (he’s British, you know…).
Our Call: SKIP IT. Monarch is a soap that’s all suds and no substance, and its most compelling character might possibly have the least screen time going forward.
Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, RollingStone.com, VanityFair.com, Fast