“Yes, I’m dying”.
That’s the grim headline of the tabloid People magazine runs in giant letters next to a photo of Dottie Roman in the first episode of MonarchTBEN’s lavish new musical soap about a ruthless country music dynasty.
Played by Susan Sarandon with a sassy swagger and an outburst closer to God, Dottie cooks up the cover story about her own terminal cancer as she prepares for her very last awards ceremony. She’s the “queen of country music” — think Dolly Parton — and she’s determined to go out with a smile on her face, even if it’s as fake as her outrage. Dottie leaked the story herself to the press, we’ll learn from that eventually. She probably even signed on for the picture — red lips pursed, provocative, peeking under the wide brim of her signature diamond-tipped cowboy hat. Everything in the private world of country music runs through Dottie.
If she must die – she later tells her daughter – it will happen to her exact specifications. Dottie is an investigation into different kinds of bad TV moms. She is a stage mother, a famous mother, a conspiratorial mother, a mother who loves her children soooo much, she knows exactly what is best for them, even in their own adulthood.
Monarch, TBEN’s new primetime drama, is something of a pastiche of greatest hits. Like the series EmpireSet in the hip-hop corner of the music industry, , revolves around one family looking to turn a generation of success into a dynasty. Like Nashville, it capitalizes on the popularity of country music. The genre has such a loyal and insatiable fan base that Monarch, which stars oil rigger and country crooner Trace Adkins as the patriarch of the Roman family, is pretty much guaranteed a second season. When TBEN canceled Nashvilleremember, it was CMT – America’s Country Music Television channel – that gave the show a lifeline for two more seasons.
In the show, “monarch” is a word that is fraught with double meanings. It is the name of the Roman family’s own record label, but also a symbol of Dottie’s dominance. She wears butterflies in her hair and on her jewelry. You might confuse it with two if she wasn’t so direct. “There can only be one queen,” she repeatedly tells her daughter Nicolette (Anna Friel), a singer with half her mother’s talent and a chip on her shoulder the size of Houston. All kinds of monarchs are of course an endangered species.
The series is guilty pleasure TV hidden in prestigious clothing and supported by a cast that can really sing. Alongside Sarandon, Adkins and Friel, former Gossip frontwoman Beth Ditto appears as Dottie’s spotlight-shy daughter Gigi and Filipino singer Iñigo Pascual her grandchild. But like the best waste, it won’t hold anything back. From the moment the curtain rises, the first episode flashes between expensive set pieces. There is a press conference, an awards ceremony, a small concert, a big concert and a superfluous helicopter scene that only seems to exist to prove that Monarch can afford a helicopter scene. Conversations end with dramatic strikes and, occasionally, right hooks.
It’s so big – so glitzy, so fleshy, so unmistakable – that it can ruthlessly kill even its biggest star. Correct! Dottie has no time to wait for cancer to kill her. So she enlists Nicolette to help her commit suicide after the Roman family’s annual “musical” — an event that doubles as The X Factor finale for whose head will inherit Dottie’s Stetson crown. Although the series was filmed in 2021, it’s hard not to think about the fate of real-life country grande dame Naomi Judd, who committed suicide earlier this summer.
As she lies dying, Dottie completes her metamorphosis from evil mother to evil matriarch. She looks at Nicolette and says to her, “You are everything I ever dreamed you would be.” These are the words every showbiz kid would love to hear. But just as she is about to die, Dottie whispers, “I’ve done things that can never be forgiven.” Viewers know that when she was a young and jealous newlywed, she set fire to an old barn. Towards the end of the pilot, we begin to suspect that her husband’s lover may be trapped in it.
Or maybe those words refer to more mundane things: the backs Dottie stabbed on her way to the top or the way she pitted Gigi and Nicolette against each other to save Monarch, the label that’s a monument to her career. In death, Dottie has transformed herself into something more terrifying than even a country music momager. She is a ghost. And her darkly ambiguous last words will haunt her children from beyond the grave, even as they destroy each other to please her.
‘Monarch’ is on TBEN in the US. A UK release date is TBC