Whoever cast Susan Sarandon—the politically-outspoken, Bernie-supporting progressive Hollywood icon (or Hollywood elite, depending on which side of the political divide you ask)—as the matriarch of a family of country music artists in a show that would air on Fox of all places is a mad genius. Or so I thought when I first heard about Monarch, the network’s new drama series premiering Sunday.
Turns out, the series is exactly what I just described. Not much more, not much less. Well, except for one glaring deceit: Susan Sarandon is largely and vexingly absent from the show she’s being billed as the runaway star of. It’s a confounding choice for a series that’s banking on reeling in viewers by hitching itself to her fame, but one that will ultimately make more sense for viewers once they tune in.
The problem is that when Sarandon isn’t on screen, the other characters do little more than wander around with their hands in their pockets waiting for Mama to return. That’s how bad the show’s thinly written plot structures and rote, soapy twists are. After the six episodes provided for press, I was left with a pit in my stomach, a lump in my throat, and one resounding thought: Monarch is proof that the network drama is dead.
Let me explain that statement, because I know it’s a dramatic one. Since the turn of the millennium, network dramas have been on a slow, steady decline. The century started strong with major hits like The O.C., Veronica Mars, Ugly Betty, and Desperate Housewives, but the rise of streaming shifted the entire paradigm.
Suddenly, networks found themselves struggling to create compelling television in a new landscape where they were competing with streaming originals that weren’t beholden to past standards and practices and outdated FCC guidelines. For a while, at least, things remained somewhat hopeful. There was Scandal and This Is Us, and even for all of its embarrassing schlock, Fox’s Empire was a ridiculously soapy hit for its first couple of seasons.
But Fox, along with all the other major networks, has been trying to stave off the drama decline for years. 2021’s Filthy Rich, starring Kim Cattrall as a televangelist preacher with a sordid history, was canceled five episodes into its 10-episode run. It seems as though any tries at more inventive original programming can’t avoid a similar fate Those who still watch network television’s drama series have made one thing abundantly clear: They enjoy police procedurals, medical dramas, and shows where firemen save the day—and that’s all.
It’s admirable that Monarch is trying to stake a halfway point somewhere between monotonous public-servant programming and something more exciting by watering down Empire’s premise and adjusting it for a demographic that’s still tuned in; it’s just too bad it never capitalizes on all the potential that could be mined from the ruthless, heartbroken music genre at its center.
Monarch introduces us to the Roman family, led by Dottie Cantrell-Roman (Sarandon) and her husband, Albie (Trace Adkins). Together, they try their best to keep the family dynasty intact, despite the best efforts of dueling daughters Nicky (Anna Friel) and Gigi (Beth Ditto), and a spitfire son, Luke (Joshua Sasse). Dottie has spent her life and career undermining her daughters’ musical ambitions, but has finally decided that she’s ready to relinquish her crown if one of them can prove a worthy successor.
While it’s certainly enjoyable to watch Friel and Ditto butt heads, there seems to be no narrative justification for the spats beyond pitting these women against each other and watching what happens. Neither of them seems to be that attached to bolstering the family legacy. Their ambivalence is another mark against Monarch’s flailing believability.
The show’s grand musical moments do, however, provide a handful of bewitching moments. Friel has some surprisingly formidable pipes, and Ditto is a wonder onscreen—as compelling an actress as she has always been as a singer. I was never bored watching them cover country classics—just deeply confused at the murky context of the songs’ appearances in the show.
In Monarch’s second episode, Dottie and Nicky cover Shania Twain’s “Man! I Feel Like A Woman!” together onstage. “Wow, that was a great cover,” I thought to myself. Moments later, a Shania Twain cameo completely throws every fact I’ve held dear in life into question when she tells Nicky that Dottie swiped “Man! I Feel Like A Woman!” out from under her as soon as Twain got the suspicion that it could be her big hit. This one single moment sent me into such a tizzy that I’m still working to recover. How is Shania even Shania in the universe of Monarch without the earth-shattering power of “Man! I Feel Like A Woman!” to shepherd her? It was like watching Julia Roberts play herself in Ocean’s 12 all over again.
That’s only one of Monarch’s many indecipherable choices, which range from tiny lines of throwaway dialogue to major character decisions so mind-bogglingly ridiculous that I was floored by how little the show entertained me through them all. The series boasts not a single interesting style choice (an orange lens flare over a sweeping shot of a mansion does not count, no matter how many times they try) or uniquely-written character. Even Gigi, who is queer in the show just as Ditto is in real life, seems like her sexuality was a last-minute ploy to give the show extra social credibility. Making Beth Ditto—lead singer of one of the most audacious rock bands of the 2000s—perform “Born This Way” as a token gay character is a hate crime as far as I’m concerned.
The show seems to enjoy spoon-feeding messaging to its audience in this way. It’s the kind of drama that runs away from nuance. “What the heck is my sister hiding?” and “Mama, what are you hiding?” are two lines plucked directly from the show, word for word. We could get those questions across with the look on an actor’s face, perhaps, but Monarch is going to stick them in the script so there’s not even a smidgen of a chance that even the most oatmeal-brained viewer could misunderstand what’s going on.
And I’ll give it to them: sometimes that felt good. It’s not hard work to watch and even enjoy Monarch. It’s a show that’s not meant to be good—hell, I’m not even sure it’s meant to be wild enough to be fun. It’s just supposed to be schlocky, easy-to-follow nonsense. It’s never trying to appeal to any crowd outside of those who scraped the bottom of the television barrel and found themselves watching 200 episodes of Blue Bloods, or coming-to after six straight hours of Criminal Minds. Monarch is laundry-folding television, absolutely perfect viewing for stacking sweaters straight from the dryer.
The hallmark of a good country record is confidence: confidence in your heartbreak, your family, your revenge, your horse, your alcoholism, or your tractor. Perhaps that’s the chief reason for Monarch’s disconnection—a total lack of confidence. It can’t decide whether it wants to be silly or serious, dramatic or droll. In that vein, it follows suit with almost every other network drama to pop up over the last five years, trying its best to sow a seed of an idea into a full season’s harvest, only to reap rot. How fitting that the sorrowful song we’re singing to network dramas as we lower the casket comes as an old-fashioned country goodbye.