Susan Sarandon’s twisted Monarch diva brings out the sinister side of country music

Hassle in tassels: Susan Sarandon as country music star Dottie Roman in ‘Monarch’ (Fox)
Hassle in tassels: Susan Sarandon as country music star Dottie Roman in ‘Monarch’ (Fox)

“Yes, I’m dying”.

That’s the stark tabloid headline People magazine runs in gigantic letters alongside a photo of Dottie Roman in the first episode of Monarch, Fox’s lavish new musical soap about a ruthless country music dynasty.

Dottie, played by Susan Sarandon with ballsy swagger and a closer-to-God blowout, seethes over the cover story about her own terminal cancer as she primps for her last ever awards show. She’s the “queen of country music” – think Dolly Parton big – 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 to the press herself, we eventually learn. She probably even signed off on the picture – red lips pursed in defiance, peeking out from under the wide brim of her signature cowboy hat with its diamante band. Everything in the cloistered world of country music runs through Dottie.

If she has to die – she later tells her daughter – then it’s going to happen to her exact specifications. Dottie is a study in several varieties of bad TV mom. She’s a stage mom, a famous mom, a conniving mom, a mom who loves her kids sooo much, she knows exactly what’s best for them, even into their own adulthoods.

Monarch, the new primetime drama from Fox, is something of a greatest-hits pastiche. Like the series Empire, set inside hip-hop’s corner of the music industry, it centres on one family looking to turn a generation of success into a dynasty. Like Nashville, it capitalises on the popularity of country music. The genre has such a loyal and insatiable fanbase that Monarch, which stars oil-rigger turned country crooner Trace Adkins as the Roman family patriarch, is pretty much guaranteed a second season. When ABC cancelled Nashville, don’t forget, it was CMT – America’s Country Music Television channel – that gave the show a lifeline for two more seasons.

On the show, “monarch” is a word burdened with double meanings. It’s the name of the Roman family’s own record label, as well as a symbol of Dottie’s domination. She wears butterflies in her hair and on her jewellery. You might mistake it for twee 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. Monarchs of all kinds are an endangered species, of course.

The series is guilty pleasure TV hiding in prestige clothing and backed by a cast that can really sing. Besides Sarandon, Adkins, and Friel, former Gossip frontwoman Beth Ditto appears as Dottie’s spotlight-shy daughter Gigi and Filipino singer Iñigo Pascual plays her grandkid. But like the best trash, it holds nothing back. The first episode dashes between spendy set-pieces from the moment the curtain rises. There’s a press conference, an award ceremony, a small concert, a big concert, and a superfluous helicopter scene which seems to exist only to prove that Monarch can afford a helicopter scene. Conversations end with dramatic walkouts and, occasionally, right hooks.

Nicolette (Anna Friel) is the showbiz kid of evil matriarch Dottie (Fox)
Nicolette (Anna Friel) is the showbiz kid of evil matriarch Dottie (Fox)

It’s so big – so glitzy, so pulpy, so undeniable – that it can even ruthlessly kill off its biggest star. That’s right! Dottie doesn’t have time to wait for cancer to kill her. So she enlists Nicolette to help her take her own life after the annual Roman family “musicale” – an event that doubles as The X-Factor finale for whose head will inherit Dottie’s Stetson crown. Though the series was filmed in 2021, it’s hard not to think of the fate of real-life country grande dame Naomi Judd, who killed herself earlier this summer.

It’s as she lies dying that Dottie completes her metamorphosis from bad mother to evil matriarch. She looks at Nicolette and tells her, “You are everything I ever dreamed you would be.” These are the words any showbiz kid longs to hear. But just as she’s about to expire, 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. By the end of the pilot, we begin to suspect her husband’s lover could have been trapped inside it.

Or maybe those words refer to matters more quotidian: the backs Dottie stabbed on her way to the top or the way she’s pitted Gigi and Nicolette against each other to save Monarch, the label that stands as a monument to her career. In death, Dottie has transformed herself into something more fearsome than even a country music momager. She’s a ghost. And her darkly ambiguous final words will haunt her kids from the grave, even as they destroy each other to please her.

‘Monarch’ is on Fox in the US. A UK release date is TBC