‘Monarch’ tries to do ‘Empire’ with a country twang but never takes flight


(CNN)If ever a show had its “elevator pitch” written on its sleeve, it’s Fox’s “Monarch,” which was pretty transparently sold as “‘Empire,’ but with country music!” That backdrop opens up obvious possibilities — starting with a list of country cameos — but it can’t make this family drama take flight, or feel any fresher than another iteration of a “She done me wrong” song.

Just to sum up the familiar tune on display, “Monarch” — which, after an eight-month delay, will be introduced after Fox’s NFL coverage before shifting to its regular Monday time slot — begins with a flash-forward that involves a dead body, and a flashback showing an arson fire. And that’s all in the first three minutes.

Still, the hits keep on coming, as the show goes about illustrating the fractious relationships holding together the first family of country music, the Romans, with matriarch Dottie (Susan Sarandon) and her hubby Albie (Trace Adkins) both established stars, while daughter Nicky (“Pushing Daisies'” Anna Friel) yearns for a level of stardom that has thus far eluded her.

    “I’ve been preparing for this moment my entire life,” Nicky says when presented an opportunity to shine, but of course, that comes amid a family crisis that also opens up issues for her sister Gigi (Beth Ditto), who has stayed outside the spotlight; and brother Luke (Joshua Sasse), who essentially runs the family’s business interests.

      Created by screenwriter Melissa London Hilfers, “Monarch” contains the usual family feuds and secrets, teasing out the latter, “How to Get Away With Murder” style, by counting down toward revealing what happened when the story began.

        Yet it’s all steeped in overly familiar soap-opera flourishes, to the point where when one of the characters tries to halt a possible sexual encounter by saying, “This is wrong,” that’s a pretty sure-fire clue that they’re going to go ahead and do it anyway. Indeed, there are so many country cliches, the biggest shock might be that there isn’t drama built around a rodeo sequence until the fourth episode.

        As noted, the setting creates the opportunity for the likes of Shania Twain to pop in during the early episodes (Martina McBride and Tanya Tucker will show up later), and for Sarandon to play the imperious “queen” of country.

          That said, Sarandon fills a relatively modest role, and even in the ensemble context it’s primarily Friel’s show, with Adkins delivering most of his lines in a cranky, bear-like growl. (As a footnote, Sarandon’s daughter, Eva Amurri, appears as Dottie in the flashbacks, reflecting that this is a family affair in more ways than one.)

          As the premise makes clear, “Monarch” doesn’t intent to reinvent the wheel, but rather simply to wrap the rich-family soap template in a slightly different package, garnished with an assortment of country standards, sequins and cowboy hats.

            A country-craving crowd might be ready for that rather slim wrinkle, with the understanding that when it comes to serialized dramas built around family dynasties, “Monarch” won’t be anybody’s first rodeo.

            “Monarch” premieres September 11 at 8 p.m. ET (after football) on Fox.