I hope someone out there appreciates the rigors one has to go through to cover the full breadth of what falls within the “country music” beat. Lucky for you, I watched the debut episode of FOX’s new country music drama Monarch starring Trace Adkins and Susan Sarandon so you didn’t have to, and I just want to say, you’re welcome. Go ahead and free up the space on your DVR, and I’ll accept hazard pay if anyone wants to hit me up on Venmo. But just like much of mainstream country music, Monarch just may be bad enough to become a massive success.
The reason this show was even worth a curious peak is because it could have implications on the world of country music at large. With Paramount’s Yellowstone series launching careers if someone’s music is featured in the show, and after the success ABC found with the country music-based drama Nashville between 2012 and 2017, it was worth giving Monarch a sniff. But where Nashville presented compelling characters you wanted to root for while interweaving storylines relevant to the actual country music world, Monarch just feels like a stock network television drama with country music as the backdrop and merchandising tie-in.
Sold as a “Texas-sized, multigenerational musical drama about a family synonymous with authenticity,” Susan Sarandon plays the ailing “Queen of Country Music” Dottie Cantrell Roman, Trace Adkins is her asshole husband Albie, and British actress Anna Friel is Nicolette “Nicky” Roman, a.k.a. the heiress to what is characterized as the “First Family of Country Music.” The Romans live in Austin on a big estate, but spend ample time in Nashville tending to the family record label business. In other words, it’s Empire for rednecks, borrowing way too much from it’s predecessor out of the chute, and is about as believable as Sarandon’s Southern accent.
The Monarch debut was all drama, with no time to breathe, and no meaningful dialogue. When the best line comes from Susan Sarandon’s character when she’s brushing down a thoroughbred and chides to her son, “Don’t be a horses ass,” then turns to the horse and says, “No offense,” you know you’re screwed. There are all kinds of drama threads presented in the premier episode amid canned commentary and sweeping panoramas of the Austin skyline and Roman estate, but it’s hard to know who to root for on the show when every character is distinctly hateable. The Monarch stable of characters are all bitches, douchebags, and dickheads.
But make no mistake, critics will fawn over this series and the debut episode specifically since there is an interracial same sex kiss. Susan Sarandon’s other daughter in the drama is an overweight lesbian with a Black wife, which means this show will win seven Emmys. But anyone with any taste had switched over the the Sunday Night tilt between the Dallas Cowboys and Tampa Bay Buccaneers by the third commercial break.
About the only silver lining was the soundtrack. It was no Yellowstone mind you, which features some of the best of today’s independent country artists. But it wasn’t ABC’s Nashville either, which deserves credit for working in original songs, though they got mostly lost on the television format. Monarch in contrast had Eddie Rabbitt’s “Drivin’ My Life Away,” Brooks & Dunn’s “Boot Scootin’ Boogie,” and performances of Hank Jr.’s “Family Tradition” and “Good Hearted Woman” by Waylon Jennings. Were these morsels worth suffering through the hour to hear them? Of course not. But perhaps someone out there was exposed to some actual country music instead of what they’re used to on the radio.
FOX has been selling this series hard, and for two years now. It was supposed to debut last year, but they delayed it due to production issues brought on by COVID-19. Judging from the debut, it probably deserved even longer in the oven, better writers, and a better cast. Trace Adkins felt like a stiff with no subtlety to the character, and it only feels like Susan Sarandon is involved because it’s shot in her home city of Austin and she’ll be killed off in the series.
With a smorgasbord of choices these days in media, Monarch feels like like a waste of your time, and a guilty pleasure at best, at least judging from the first episode. It screams of the network television approach to entertainment. I’m sure there will be some audience for it, but it’s relevance to country music will be relegated to helping fill out presenter rosters at award shows, and brand activations at bad corporate music festivals.
It was only one episode, but this country music fan won’t be back to see how producers figure out how to string these poorly-constructed characters out for five season before they all kill each other.
1 1/2 Guns Down (3.5/10)