It’s more of a public service than a spoiler to reveal that no matter how Fox promotes the show, polarizing Oscar winner Susan Sarandon really isn’t the main star of the new musical soap. Monarch.
Armed with this knowledge, everyone steps forward. Sarandon haters can tune in Monarch without fear of an excess of Susan Sarandon; Sarandon fans, the real winners here, can safely skip Monarch whole.
It comes down to
Consistently off key.
Although it wants to be obvious and rather desperate Empire only with country music, Monarch is really just lengthy mediocre karaoke. Any karaoke aficionado can tell you that mediocre karaoke is the worst karaoke of all. Bad karaoke is drunk, trashy fun. Great karaoke is entertaining and musical. Moderate karaoke? It’s that movie with Gwyneth Paltrow and Huey Lewis. (duets. It is called duets.) And Monarch wish it was even that good.
Sarandon and Trace Adkins play Dottie and Albie Roman, the first country music couple. With her health issues on magazine covers, Dottie began to worry about her legacy, which I know because Dottie references her legacy in at least a quarter of the dialogues in the Melissa London Hilfer scripted pilot.
Dottie and Albie’s three children are the potential caretakers of that legacy, but all three have been pushed into the background or marginalized over the years due to Dottie’s voracious appetite for the limelight. There’s Nicky (Anna Friel), who’s always desperately craved stardom, but she’s all too aware that, being in her 40s, her moment may be over. 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 businesslike approach to Monarch, the family’s record label, has caused him to make headlines with the outspoken anti-pinhead Albie.
In addition to her medical condition (revealed in the first 10 minutes of the pilot, so this isn’t a spoiler either), Dottie harbors some big secrets, possibly related to the flash-forward segments that book each episode – scenes with a grinning Albie with a shotgun and the plastic-wrapped body of an unidentified person. Otherwise, into the drama Monarch is by-the-numbers soap stuff. Gigi and Nicky start to argue stupidly over which one of them will inherit the aforementioned family legacy. Nicky has a flirtatious British husband (Adam Croasdell, horrible 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 is having a totally inappropriate affair of his own.
On the sidelines, but excruciatingly every time they appear on screen, Catt Phoenix (Martha Higareda) are demanding stage mom of aspiring singer Ana (Emma Milani). Ana begins a completely unfounded flirtation with Nicky’s son Ace (Iñigo Pascual), who has stage fright in the pilot, which is never mentioned again – kind of like Nicky’s daughter (Ava Grace’s Tatum), who hasn’t gotten six episodes even a fifth-tier storyline. Oh, and Catt and Ana have their own secret that any viewer who pays even half the attention will have figured it out well before it’s revealed.
A show like this is supposed to suggest it takes viewers behind the curtain of a flashy but clandestine world, but there’s no indication Monarch has a lot to say about the contemporary landscape of country music or anything that goes with it. The show kind of takes place in Austin, but has absolutely nothing to say about modern-day Texas, and since it was filmed in the Atlanta area, it doesn’t look or feel like Austin or much of anywhere else.
The soapy stuff is poorly developed and I kept thinking maybe I may have accidentally skipped entire episodes explaining the bickering back and forth with Gigi and Nicky or in several of the flat relationships. Perhaps the emotional stuff is undercooked due to the strict adherence to a structure where each episode builds up to a live event – a rodeo! An award show! A Christmas special in July! — with the exact same mandatory elements, from song selection to rehearsal to performance, such as Monarch was written by an excel spreadsheet. It also doesn’t make sense for the show to know how each character’s behavior makes them unsympathetic in different ways.
It’s amazing how much of the inherent awkwardness of a bad primetime musical soap can be excused if the music is really good. Empire and Nashville were often slack shows when their respective characters were talking or interacting, but damn if they didn’t know how to pull off two or three great songs/performances per episode. Monarch makes maybe two or three total in the episodes I’ve seen.
Monarch began with the dubious decision to make the show’s music mostly covers. Yes, there are a few originals, but they are so completely buried that you may not notice. Then the still dubious decision was made to have the main characters sing covers, but pretend to be characters in the show. So a character will talk about how they tapped into their authentic new voice and they’ll sing Miranda Lambert’s “Kerosene”, or we’ll hear tell a character is a revolutionary force in country music, which will be illustrated by them in a twangy cover of Lizzy’s “Juice.” 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 that’s when I started to wonder if Monarch was less just plain bad and more an attempt at science fiction. But no, it isn’t.
cheerfulness clearly made a ton of money for everyone by doing three or four covers per episode and that was probably the argument that the Monarch team used to get a list of songs that is undeniably impressive. But the cheerfulness songs were carefully and intricately arranged. It’s not that the cast of Monarch can’t sing the songs they get. It is that they are rarely allowed to sing them in a fresh way. It feels like a waste to have real musical talents like Ditto and Trace Adkins on karaoke, but at least they do it with some nuance.
If only Adkins were this good at acting his responsibility. He’s got on-screen presence and vocal gravity for days on end, but when he’s facing Sarandon or Friel, it’s hard not to realize how awkward he looks. Ditto is by far the most versatile star of the cast, singing equally natural and generally sassy, but she is always brought to her knees by poor dialogue and character ignorance. There is no breakout character in Monarch and no breakthrough in a show that desperately needs its own version of Taraji P. Henson’s Cookie.
I couldn’t even argue for Gigi to inherit Dottie’s legacy, and it will remain Monarch without a single character in whose storyline I was invested and the occasional prospect of hearing Trace Adkins doing something as a cover, Willie Nelson’s “Always on my Mind” just isn’t enough for the necessary dedication. I probably have eight combined seasons of Nashville and Empirebut I’m already done with this combination of the two.