Fox’s new primetime drama features starring turns from Anna Friel, Beth Ditto, and screen queen Susan Sarandon, with hits songs and remixes.
Whether it’s the cutthroat business world of Succession to the fantasy universe of House of the Dragon, television audiences are here to see the chaos and drama of families living and working with each other. Looking to add to the mix is Fox’s newest drama Monarch, from writer Melissa Hilfers.
Monarch follows the country music dynasty of the Roman family, led by matriarch Dottie Roman (Susan Sarandon), a legend looking to find her replacement as she faces terminal cancer. Monarch might stumble a bit on tone, but it’s an amusing and thrilling honky-tonk ride as the Roman family competes to take the country music throne.
Monarch begins with Dottie and her husband, Albie (Trace Adkins), dealing with the fallout when her cancer diagnosis is leaked, and prompts a power struggle between their children. While daughter Nicky (Anna Friel) was always primed as next in line, outcast sister Gigi (Beth Ditto) steps up the competition when a performance of hers goes viral. Their brother, Luke (Joshua Sasse), is CEO of Monarch Records, but his messy personal life could threaten the company’s future and tear his family apart. As Dottie always says, there can be only one queen, and it’s a battle between the siblings to take over the family and business legacy.
Susan Sarandon is wickedly fun as Dottie. She’s spent her life building her legendary career, mostly to the detriment of her family. She’s stolen songs from Nicky, pushed her sister Nelly (a wonderful guest starring turn from Faith Prince) aside to become a star, and has burned many bridges to build her career. Sarandon plays Dottie as someone teetering between good and evil, a wife and mother who wants what’s best for her family, even if it means being resigned to her malicious past as she faces terminal cancer. Dottie’s like a bedazzled version of Succession‘s Logan Roy, running her family and business with an iron fist and acrylic nails, and played with sinister glee.
The rest of the cast of Monarch is fantastic as well. Adkins is playing close to type as the stoic “Texas Truthteller” Albie Roman. Albie’s got secrets, much like Dottie, only his seem to torment him, pushing him closer to alcohol. Anna Friel hits all the right notes as Nicky, the elder sister who’s practically a carbon copy of Dottie. Friel balances Nicky’s emotions between her admiration for Dottie, the legend who paved the way, and frustration, as Nicky’s career never took off because Dottie refused to give up the limelight.
One standout from the cast will certainly be Beth Ditto as Gigi, Nicky’s sister who’s tired of being overlooked. Sent off to camps to address both her body issues and sexual orientation growing up, Gigi’s never quite felt like she belonged in the family, feeling particularly distant from Dottie. She may be far from her mother’s “traditional” values, but she’s inherited her mother’s voice, belting out hits like Lizzo’s “Juice” and Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way,” all with a country twist. Needless to say, the soundtrack is full of remixed hits and some original songs, and Ditto crushes every song as Gigi.
The tone of Monarch flutters between family drama and campy primetime soap. There are some standard camp elements: cheating spouses, secret love children, and wildly dramatic deaths that may or not be murder. The story is also told with a mix of flashbacks and flash-forwards, taking us to Dottie’s past (younger Dottie is played by Eva Amurri, Sarandon’s real life daughter), her days as an ailing country star, and to an ominous night where the Roman family comes together to cover up something bad. The constant jumping around timelines is clever, as it sets a puzzle that viewers will want to solve.
There are some fascinating scenes that fill out the universe. In the second episode, Dottie and Nicky sing a fine rendition of “Man, I Feel Like A Woman.” Later in the same episode, the one and only Shania Twain accuses Dottie of stealing “Man, I Feel Like a Woman” from her, turning it into one of Dottie’s signature songs. A bold choice to cement the legacy of Dottie; it feels a bit jarring as many viewers will know it as one of Twain’s signature songs. Perhaps in addition to jumps in time, Monarch also plays with parallel universes, existing in an alternate world where no one knows the Twain version of “Man, I Feel Like A Woman.” Some advice might be to let the world of Monarch wash over you like the Aquanet holding up Dottie’s bouffant hair – it might feel a little weird to breathe in, but you’re going to have a fun time.
While it may not be a full-fledged soap, Monarch has plenty of intriguing twists and thrilling drama to keep viewers engaged in the chaos surrounding the Roman family dynasty. Here’s hoping it gets a season two to build on both that dynasty, and the dysfunctional Romans, as an enjoyable soundtrack plays on.
Monarch premieres on Fox September 11th.