Okay let’s not bury the lede here, babes (er — y’all? Should I only be using y’all now?), the rumors are true: Susan Sarandon’s Dottie Roman, who was being pushed heavily as the lead throughout Monarch’s pretty hefty marketing campaign, dies by the end of the pilot episode. It’s not a fake-out, friends: Dottie is REAL dead. By her own hand! Well, technically she gets an assist from her daughter Nicky, but we’ll get to that in a minute. What a mind-boggling move! And not just because of the top-billing fake-out, but mostly because, at least based on this episode, Monarch just killed off its most interesting character. In just one episode, country music icon Dottie Roman was out here lighting the matches — sometimes literally! — to ignite chaos and delivering lines like, “Child, if there is a hell, I booked my ticket years ago” with some real soap-opera diva gusto. Every soap needs a bitchy schemer to both love and fear and we may have just lost Monarch’s only one.
Now, there’s of course room for one of the other Romans to succeed the Queen of Country in more ways than just her music career, but based on this first outing most of these ding-dongs seem pretty soft. There’s Albie Roman, Dottie’s husband with whom, at just 19, she began building a country music dynasty. I mean, Albie might have potential. The episode is framed by scenes of Albie three months after Dottie’s death: In the first, he pulls a shotgun on an unseen person in the middle of the woods and says “A Roman never forgets a friend … or an enemy” before pulling the trigger. The line needs some workshopping, but the sentiment is strong. The second scene set in the future finds Albie still in those woods, burying a body. In the show’s present day, Albie punches a reporter at a press conference for the Romans’ CMA Lifetime Achievement award when the guy asks about a rumor circulating that Dottie is dying and he seems to be disgusted by his own son Luke because he’s “into” “business” and wears camel-colored jackets with the collar popped. So, there is some promise that Albie could have a Dottie-esque level of ruthlessness to him, but I have a sneaking suspicion the “Texas Truth-Teller” is kind of a softie.
That reporter Albie punched was on to something, because Dottie Roman is really dying. She has terminal cancer and has been given mere months to live. Albie is beside himself with grief already. Dottie is his “rose!” He wrote that song “The Brambles” for her! After Dottie asks her husband if he regrets anything he’s done and he lies to her, that guilt eats away at him until he finds her after the big annual Roman Family Musicale weekend and confesses that he had an affair with a woman who was a caretaker on their property forty years ago. “After the barn fire she took off” and he never cheated again, he tells her. The real kicker is that none of this is a surprise to Dottie — she knew the whole time but never said anything because she wanted to keep the life they had. She calls him a liar and a cheater but tells him she will always love him.
Okay, no, the real real kicker is that this will actually be Albie’s last conversation with his wife because she is about to go upstairs and off herself. If he was feeling guilty before, oh boy, this cowboy is about to be in a world of pain. There’s no shot of Albie wiping his tears away with his long mane of grays, but the season is young and I know that is an image I will hold close to my heart.
Let’s talk about this “barn fire” for a — PUN VERY INTENDED — hot sec. When Albie mentions it in his confession, it is so fast you might miss it. It’s like “the barn fire” is simply a way to denote a certain period in Roman family history. But we know it has much more meaning than that. We know this because from the moment a reporter asks her about her biggest regrets, Dottie can’t stop reliving a memory from when she’s younger… and she sets a barn on fire. She still hears the screaming. So in addition to whoever Albie is burying in those flashforwards, the story of this barn fire seems like another mystery Monarch will slowly reveal. Did Dottie murder Albie’s sidepiece? Honestly, that would be great — for us, not for whoever may have perished in that fire. But, if Monarch is aiming to be Nashville-meets-Dynasty, we need to amp the crazy levels up a notch, you know?
Anyway, back to sizing up the rest of the Roman clan. The show clearly wants us to believe it’ll be Nicky who will take up after Dottie in both career choice and ambition. Nicky is a forty-something country singer who is still only seen as her parents’ sidekick. No one, save her brother, maybe, believes in her as a solo act. She wants success on her own so badly though. There’s even a moment where Dottie literally takes her special cowboy hat out of the case and places it on Nicky’s head, as if anointing her the next chosen one. Here’s the thing: If Dottie is so obsessed with the Roman legacy continuing on after she’s gone — and we know she is, the amount of times people use the words “legacy” and “dynasty” in this episode is a thing to behold! — wouldn’t she set all of her kids up for success instead of holding them back? Dottie’s motives are very confusing!
Nicky does show some grit. She talks a big “Oh, I’ll show you!!” game, but her bark is mostly bigger than her bite at this point. I mean, when she discovers her husband — a drippy English actor named Clive because of course his name is Clive — is cheating on her YET AGAIN she almost throws her curling iron in with him during his bubble bath time. This is objectively awesome, but then the next time we see them together, they’re happily dancing at the bar. She wants to keep up appearances but she’d obviously be better served by burning it all down. (Maybe literally! Like her mother! Allegedly!)
Then there’s the whole situation with her younger sister Gigi. Gigi might be the murkiest of our main characters at this point, by which I mean, what is her deal? First, she’s a harried working mom (she, maybe runs and/or owns a bar?) who can’t find the time to get ready for a red carpet event honoring her parents and she implies that she never wanted to sing because her mother emotionally abused her as a child and told her she would never be good enough. But then, after letting herself be manipulated by her mother once more for good measure, Gigi gets up on stage during the Musicale for a surprise duet to “How Do I Live” with Nicky. It kills! Gigi is amazing (she’s played by Beth Ditto, so, obviously)! The crowd chants her name! A Man Who Promotes Music Tours asks Dottie where she’s been hiding her all this time!
Off stage, Gigi explains to Nicky that she was never afraid of singing on stage, she loves it, she just knew how badly Nicky wanted to be the star and, as their mother told them, “there can only be one queen.” So Gigi’s story is that she stayed away from performing because she didn’t want to upstage Nicky? I guess we’ll go with that for now? Nicky implies that she’s ready to battle it out with her sister for the spotlight, but I don’t know, both of these women seem too nice. Are these just empty threats from both sides?
If there’s one thing, however, that might push Nicky over the edge and into really doing some damage, it could be that little ol’ thing of her mother demanding she assist her with her suicide. Dottie wants to go out on her own terms instead of waiting for her cancer to kill her and wants Nicky to help her. Nevermind how emotionally fucked up that will leave Nicky, Dottie says she’s the only one who can do it and no one else can ever know. Everyone needs to think she died from her disease. And so, after the Musicale and a little lipstick touch up, Dottie gets into bed and swallows a bunch of pills before pulling her daughter close to her to tell her “I’m not your father’s rose. I’ve done things that can never be forgiven,” before dying. So that’s like a super cool and chill final mother/daughter conversation to have. Gigi walks in to find Nicky standing over their mother’s dead body and, like a real dummy, she’s still holding the empty pill bottle. So that’s probably going to add a few more wrinkles to their sisterly bond.
And there’s Luke. This man! Luke doesn’t seem conniving, but he does seem messy as hell and I love that for him — and for us! Luke, who is CEO of the family’s record label Monarch Entertainment, has extreme daddy issues (please see aforementioned popped collar reference) and can be a real Sad Boy about it. But also he seems to bring some of his problems on himself. You know, for instance, my guy is having sex on the regular with Gigi’s wife, Kayla. That’s not a typo! He’s banging his sister-in-law! And he seems very into her? And that is so messy! That is the kind of trouble Monarch needs in the wake of Dottie’s death! Luke’s father might not be proud of him, but I am.
We’ll see who ends up becoming most deserving of Dottie’s crown — er, cowboy hat — but before that gets hashed out, we’ve got a megastar’s funeral to plan.
• Music-wise, Monarch seems to be employing a mix of country-music covers and originals. Nashville excelled at original songs, so it’ll be hard not to compare the two shows in this aspect, but hey, that “Brambles” song was pretty good.
• I’m still howling over the fact that the red-carpet reporter’s first question out of the gate is just to yell “how long do you have?!” Is there no softer way into that?
• Very bummed to learn that Joshua Sasse’s character is the non-singer of the family. I mean, they give him one little musical moment at the bar but are they really going to sideline Sir Galavant himself like this?!
• Young Dottie is played by Sarandon’s real-life daughter, Eva Amurri, by the way.
• Why did Dottie have to secretly “leak” her prognosis to People mag? Couldn’t she have just … announced it? It’s all very high maintenance!!
• When Dottie explains why she wants to control when she dies rather than letting it happen naturally she says, “I want to die the way I lived, with a smile on my face and flawless hair.” Now, that is the type of energy this show needs to bring each week.