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It’s more a public service than a spoiler to reveal that no matter how Fox is promoting the show, polarizing Oscar winner Susan Sarandon is truly not the primary star of the new musical soap opera Monarch.
Armed with this knowledge, everybody comes out ahead. Sarandon haters can tune into Monarch without fear of an excess of Susan Sarandon; Sarandon fans, the real winners here, can safely skip Monarch entirely.
Although it obviously and rather desperately wants to be Empire only with country music, Monarch is actually just protracted mediocre karaoke. Any karaoke aficionado can tell you that mediocre karaoke is the worst karaoke of all. Bad karaoke is drunken, trashy fun. Great karaoke is entertaining and musical. Mediocre karaoke? It’s that movie with Gwyneth Paltrow and Huey Lewis. (Duets. It’s called Duets.) And Monarch wishes it was even that good.
Sarandon and Trace Adkins play Dottie and Albie Roman, the first couple of country music. With her health problems splashed across magazine covers, Dottie has begun to worry about her legacy, which I know because at least a quarter of the dialogue in the Melissa London Hilfers-scripted pilot is Dottie referring to her legacy.
Dottie and Albie’s three kids are the potential caretakers of that legacy, but all three have been pushed to the background or marginalized over the years because of Dottie’s voracious appetite for the spotlight. There’s Nicky (Anna Friel), who has always desperately craved stardom, but she’s all too aware that given that she’s in her 40s, her moment may have passed. There’s Gigi (Beth Ditto), whose weight and sexuality never lived up to her mother’s ideals, so she never pursued a career in music despite obvious talent. And finally there’s Luke (Joshua Sasse), whose business-focused approach to Monarch, the family’s record label, has caused him to butt heads with the distinctly anti-pinhead Albie.
In addition to her medical condition (revealed in the first 10 minutes of the pilot, so this is not a spoiler either), Dottie is harboring some big secrets, which may be related to the flash-forward segments that bookend every episode — scenes featuring a glowering Albie with a shotgun and the plastic-wrapped body of an unidentified person. Otherwise, the drama in Monarch is by-the-numbers soap stuff. Gigi and Nicky begin feuding stupidly about which of them will take over the aforementioned family legacy. Nicky’s got a philandering British hubby (Adam Croasdell, awful but mostly because of the writing), so she responds by becoming the center of a love triangle between two boring guys with great jawlines, one clean-shaven and one scruffy. Luke’s having an entirely inappropriate affair of his own.
Off to the side, but excruciating every time they appear on-screen, are Catt Phoenix (Martha Higareda) demanding stage mom to aspiring singer Ana (Emma Milani). Ana embarks on a completely unjustified flirtation with Nicky’s son Ace (Iñigo Pascual), who has stage fright in the pilot, which is never mentioned again — a bit like Nicky’s daughter (Ava Grace’s Tatum), who through six episodes hasn’t been given even a fifth-tier storyline. Oh, and Catt and Ana have their own secret that every single viewer paying even half-attention will have figured out well before it’s revealed.
A show like this needs to suggest that it’s taking viewers behind the curtain of a flashy-yet-clandestine world, but there’s no indication Monarch has much to say about the contemporary country music landscape or anything ancillary to it. The show is kinda set in Austin, but definitely has nothing to say about contemporary Texas, and since it was filmed in the Atlanta area, it doesn’t look or feel like Austin or much of anywhere.
The soapy stuff is badly developed, and I kept thinking I might have accidentally skipped whole episodes that explained the back-and-forth bickering with Gigi and Nicky or in several of the flat relationships. Maybe the emotional stuff is undercooked because of the show’s strict adherence to a structure in which every episode builds to a live event — A rodeo! An award show! A Christmas special in July! — with the exact same obligatory elements from song selection to rehearsal to performance, like Monarch was written by an Excel spreadsheet. There’s also no sense that the show knows how each and every character’s behavior makes them unlikable in different ways.
It’s amazing how much of the inherent clumsiness of a bad primetime musical soap can be excused if the music is actually good. Empire and Nashville were often flimsy shows when their respective characters were talking or interacting, but damned if they didn’t know how to stage two or three killer songs/performances per episode. Monarch delivers maybe two or three total in the episodes I’ve seen.
Monarch began with the questionable decision to have the show’s music be mostly covers. Yes, there are a few originals, but they’re so completely buried you might not notice. Then the even more questionable decision was made to have the main characters singing covers, but pretending they belong to the characters on the show. So a character will talk about how they’ve tapped into their authentic new voice and they’ll sing Miranda Lambert’s “Kerosene,” or we’ll hear tell that a character is a revolutionary force in country music, which will be illustrated by them doing a twangy cover of Lizzy’s “Juicy.” Shania Twain appears as herself and complains that Dottie stole a song that could have been a big hit for her, and that song was Dottie’s hit… “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” And it’s at that point that I started to wonder if Monarch was less simply bad and more attempted science fiction. But no, it’s not.
Glee obviously made a ton of money for everybody off of doing three or four cover songs per episode and that was probably the argument the Monarch team used to get a roster of songs that is indisputably impressive. But the Glee songs were carefully and intricately arranged. It isn’t that the cast of Monarch can’t sing the songs they’re given. It’s that they’re very rarely allowed to sing them in any way that’s fresh. It feels like a heck of a waste to have actual musical talents like Ditto and Trace Adkins doing karaoke, but at least they do it with some nuance.
If only Adkins were as good with the acting part of his responsibility. He’s got screen presence and vocal gravity for days, but when he’s opposite Sarandon or Friel, it’s hard not to be aware of how uncomfortable he looks. Ditto is far and away the cast’s most versatile standout, equally natural singing and being generally sassy, but she keeps getting taken out at the knees by bad dialogue and fits of character obliviousness. There’s no breakout character to be found in Monarch and no breakout performance in a show that desperately needs its own version of Taraji P. Henson’s Cookie.
I couldn’t even root for Gigi to inherit Dottie’s legacy, and that leaves Monarch without a single character whose storyline I was invested in and the occasional prospect of hearing Trace Adkins do something like cover Willie Nelson’s “Always on my Mind” just isn’t enough for the necessary commitment. I watched probably eight combined seasons of Nashville and Empire, but I’m already done with this combination of the two.
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