A good cover band — OK, I'm not sure "good" is the word that should be used here — provides comfort because of one major thing: there's absolutely nothing unexpected about it! It is pretty much the most risk-averse artistic endeavor one can partake in. If you, god forbid, spend money to go see a cover band, you know you're paying for a dollar-store version of an act you actually like at a fraction of the cost of the original, but you also know you're getting all of the familiar hits you can hum the lyrics and rhythms to. Fox's big country music drama Monarch, premiering Sunday, Sept. 11 after the network's NFL double header, is the television equivalent of a cover band, a series that forgoes creativity in favor of hitting the same beats of several shows you already know (and maybe even love). And like a good cover band, the end result is, ultimately, that you'd rather be watching the original.
It wouldn't be wrong to say Monarch is singing the same tune as ABC's Nashville — a salacious, self-aware, and soapy music business drama that got more absurd as it went on — but it harmonizes better with Fox's own Empire, a former ratings megahit about a family-run hip-hop label that tore its core clan apart. (It is not, as showrunner Jon Feldman wishes, like Succession.) Like Empire, Monarch is named after a fictional record label, this one run by the Romans, a family of Austin-based, twangy country legends. They're led by beloved matriarch Dottie (Susan Sarandon) and gravel-eating pa Albie (Trace Adkins), both stars in their own right. Dottie and Albie are parents to 40-year-old Nicky (Anna Friel), who has been waiting in her mom's shadow for her moment to shine, her younger sister Gigi (Beth Ditto), a naturally talented queer singer who has shied away from the spotlight, and Luke (Joshua Sasse), the "business guy," who's CEO of Monarch and a disappointment to his shotgun-cocking daddy. (Cheat sheet: Think of them as country music versions of Empire's Hakeem, Jamal, and Andre.)
When Dottie chooses to step away due to illness, the vacuum created by her absence puts Nicky and Gigi at each other's throats as they vie to become the new queen of country. ("She may be your big sister, but this ain't show family, it's show business" is the type of line you can expect to hear muttered on this show.) It's less about the intricacies of the industry and more about how much these sisters hate each other, a blunt spin on Empire's interesting behind-closed-doors look at the cutthroat music biz, and how family often gets in the way of making money and retaining legacy.
And because this is a broadcast show, there's a murder, obviously, which kicks things off in a series-opening flashforward and causes all sorts of complications and questions: Who was murdered, and why were they murdered? (And, more pressingly, why should we care?) The timelines weave in and out as characters we know from the present slowly appear in the future and get in on the crime cover-up, eliminating them from the possibility of being dead, but not from the possibility of getting the Folsom prison blues.
When they're not killing each other, the characters of Monarch are cheating on and f---ing each other. (It really is a country music album as a television show!) One particularly scandalous story involves a woman having an affair with her wife's brother; everything's bigger in Texas, except for the amount of available sexual partners, apparently. The series follows, rather roughly, the romantic entanglements of the primetime soaps that came before it.
But you just want to watch for the music! Well, there's plenty. Just don't expect originality on the level of Nashville, which boasted T-Bone Burnett as executive music producer on Season 1 and delivered fresh, original songs like "No One Will Ever Love You," or Empire, which had Timbaland as executive music producer and gave us "Drip Drop" (you know you love it). Monarch is happy to commit the sin of instant accessibility over originality, like it's making music for movie trailers. Nearly everything in Monarch is a countrified cover, borrowing pop hits from artists like Harry Styles and Lizzo, and trotting out classics like "Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys." The talent isn't bad — Ditto is supremely gifted, Friel can hold her own, and Adkins dropping bass on "I've Got Friends in Low Places" shakes the room — and the performances are decent, but they come off as uninspired. Instead of getting the feeling that you're among country music royalty, you feel like you're at a karaoke bar with an elaborate costume closet, or watching Glee: Y'all.
What might keep viewers coming back is Monarch's commitment to stuffing each episode with ridiculously fast-paced drama. Murder, suicide, divorces, extramarital affairs, property theft, intellectual property theft, unplanned pregnancies, adopted children, secret children born out of wedlock... and that's not including the cutthroat business decisions made before every commercial break. A lot happens every hour, which is a handy way of helping its audience forget that there's no real character development going on. But for those of us who stuck with Nashville for too many seasons, maybe that's exactly the sort of in-one-ear-and-out-the-other song we want to hear on a Tuesday night.
Premieres: Sunday, Sept 11 on Fox (moves to regular Tuesday at 9/8c timeslot on Sept. 20)
Who's in it: Anna Friel, Trace Adkins, Susan Sarandon, Beth Ditto, Joshua Sasse
Who's behind it: Melissa London Hilfers (creator)
For fans of: Nashville, Empire, bars with chicken-wire fences
How many episodes we watched: 6