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REVIEW: 'Monarch' soaps up country music's windows

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If you thought there were a lot of award shows in country music, wait until you see the new Fox series, “Monarch.”

Set in Nashville, it suggests those all-important totems of popularity drive the industry. Before the end of the first season, we get several tribute shows, including a nail-biting competition that pits family member against family member.

First, though, you must realize the Roman family is country's undisputed royalty. Dottie (Susan Sarandon) is the queen; Albie (Trace Adkins) is king. They’ve got two daughters, Nicolette (Anna Friel) and Gigi (Beth Ditto), who are hot to take mom’s title. She understands this and has a real convoluted way of passing on the family china.

“Monarch,” in fact, is such a mishmash of styles you don’t know if it’s satire or soap opera. Instead of crafting new songs for something like this (like “Nashville”), “Monarch” includes plenty of recognizable hits and suggests they’re the creations of the Roman clan. Shania Twain (who makes a guest appearance) gets a great shot at the practice but, largely, this is greatest hits sung by a cover band.

Created by Melissa London Hilfers, “Monarch” was supposed to air last season but pandemic shooting problems delayed the start date. That’s not necessarily in its favor. There’s a Judds-like episode that’s appalling and should have been nixed before the season started.

There’s also a mix of tropes that wear out quickly. Albie always seems to be reaching for his gun; Nicolette constantly stabs people in the back and Gigi looks for every way she can to ruffle feathers. Only son Luke (Joshua Sasse) tries to smooth things over and that’s probably because he also has a few skeletons that are ratting. Interestingly, he looks a lot like David Copperfield – wave an arm and, magically, the problems disappear.

Because “Monarch” (which is the name of the family company) doesn’t really dig beneath its “Dallas”/”Dynasty” trappings, there are plenty of moments that ring false. When the performers are on stage, they seem real. When they’re insulting each other at home, they look phony.

“Monarch” tries to get into the pressure that comes in something like the music business but country music is more laid back than most genres. You can see that when real stars step out for cameos. Karen Fairchild has a nice bit in a later episode; Tanya Tucker breezes through like she’s on a series of one-nighters through the Midwest.

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And then, there’s Susan Sarandon. She’s the force behind all the intrigue. Determined to be a legend, she manipulates everyone – even Jesus, with her “half-Christmas” – and wonders why everyone isn’t supportive.

Because Hilfers constantly flashes backward, it’s never certain what has happened. This isn’t a “This Is Us” conceit. It’s a “This Is Them” one that doesn’t work.

Of the family members, Ditto wins the most support. She has a Wynonna streak that bodes well for longevity, but a sister who can’t seem to settle on a narrative.

The sprawling show features plenty of stray relatives (Faith Prince is a hoot as Dottie’s sister) and potential “writing” partners.

Friel does a great job playing a hot mess but Adkins is often saddled with lines that wouldn’t have made it out of “Gunsmoke’s” corral.

When you see how the first two episodes spin out (don’t even mention the hologram), you’ll understand why “Monarch” isn’t close to being a glimpse at what Nashville is really like.

There’s a great story to be told about the city (remember Robert Altman’s take?). This isn’t it.

“Monarch” airs Sept. 11 on Fox.



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