A few years ago, the writer Melissa London Hilfers was having lunch with her friend Gail Berman, the TV and movie producer. Berman mentioned that Fox was looking into doing a dramatic series based in the country music world.
Hilfers lit up. She had grown up in a big Maryland family that liked to jam in the living room with friends, her dad leading the way on guitar. As she recalled in a recent video interview, she had a flash: “What if we reimagined the Romanov dynasty as a family of country music stars in Austin, Texas?” Berman liked the pitch.
Hilfers’s idea has since evolved into the new Fox drama “Monarch,” premiering Sunday. (Hilfers is the creator and, alongside Berman, an executive producer.) The Romanov dynasty has been replaced by the Roman family, a bickering, spiteful bunch that clings to its reputation as the first family of country music and leaves a trail of corpses in its wake. Part “King Lear,” part prime-time soap opera, “Monarch” plays like Fox’s hip-hop hit “Empire” in a Stetson. Bad behavior competes with messy love at every turn.
Hilfers wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Lie upon lie upon lie,” she said. “Murder, sex, betrayal. I love that stuff.”
Atop the Roman family sits the matriarch, Dottie (Susan Sarandon), an emotionally manipulative superstar whose health is waning. Dottie would like to see her eldest daughter, Nicky (Anna Friel), the narrative heart of the series, inherit the crown. But Nicky’s little sister, Gigi (Beth Ditto), long consigned to the shadows by her mother, is now primed for a power move.
Their brother, Luke (Joshua Sasse), runs the Monarch label — and is sleeping with Gigi’s wife, Kayla (Meagan Holder). Meanwhile, the father, Albie (played by the towering, baritone-voiced country star Trace Adkins), just wants to drink whiskey, record classic outlaw country songs, browbeat his corporate-minded son and cover up the murder that he or someone close to him seems to have committed.
Pause. Deep breath.
It’s a busy family, and a busy show — “a good page-turner,” as Sarandon put it in a recent call. Or, as the country music veteran Adkins described it in a separate conversation, “There has to be drama all the time.”
“I like zero drama myself,” he added. He sounded a little like Albie, who would really rather just play music. And cock his shotgun. That happens a lot.
Fox did well with “Empire,” which ran from 2015 to 2020 with a similarly soapy vibe, if a much different soundtrack. Created by Lee Daniels and Danny Strong, “Empire” put hip-hop melodrama in prime time and became a consistent ratings winner for the network. With its broad strokes and criminal subplots, “Monarch” does something similar with country. The last prime-time country hit, “Nashville” (which ran on ABC from 2012 to 2016 and on CMT from 2017 to 2018), plays like kitchen sink realism by comparison.
Fox has long considered itself a leader in musical programming, offering scripted shows like “Empire” and “Glee” as well as reality series like “American Idol” and “The Masked Singer.” Having surveyed the current landscape, which includes Paramount’s countrified streaming hit “Yellowstone,” Fox determined this was the time to make its country play.
“The country music audience is a passionate, huge audience, and the overlap between that audience with the Fox audience is quite significant,” said Michael Thorn, the president of entertainment at Fox Entertainment, in a recent call. “We’re very strong in the South, Southeast, Southwest, and in Middle America in terms of our connection with our audience and where our programming resonates the most.”
To stand a chance, a country series must do well by the music, and Adkins was a key element in pulling that off. As the most prominent cast member with experience in the industry, Adkins is a bridge between the outlaw tradition of artists like Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard and the more pop-flavored style that has racked up so much radio play in recent years.
One “Monarch” subplot finds Albie teaming up with a producer (Damon Dayoub) who wants to bring him back to basics. That means we get to hear Adkins growl out classics like “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys” and “Friends in Low Places,” for which his voice was seemingly made.
“When I looked at the script, it just seemed like something that maybe I could contribute to as far as the authenticity of it,” Adkins said. “I know that world. What this show is about is something that I’ve lived for the last 25 years being in the business.”
But “Monarch” also keeps an eye on the pop charts, with country-style cover versions of recent hits. These include Ditto’s spirited cover of Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way,” perfect for her rising gay country star character, and a duet version of Harry Styles’s “Watermelon Sugar,” performed by Nicky’s son, Ace (Inigo Dominic Pascual), and his love interest, Ana (Emma Milani). The show’s executive music producer, Adam Anders, who had the same job on “Glee,” has a hand in all of it, including selecting the songwriters for the series’s original numbers.
Sarandon, whose musical tastes encompass anything she can dance to (Stevie Wonder, LCD Soundsystem), admitted she didn’t know much about the country scene heading into “Monarch.” But playing Dottie made her a willing learner.
“Anytime a character is mean, it’s so much fun to play because they say and do things that I don’t have the balls to say or do, so that was very enticing,” she said. “Learning so much about that world and working with Trace, whose life-formative experiences are so far from my own, was just the best and also so educational.”
If there’s an eye of this country storm it’s Friel’s Nicky, the heir apparent who finds herself in a bitter sibling rivalry with her little sister. Nicky has been waiting for years to usurp the throne; now she’s on the other side of 40 and feeling the pressure as younger competitors nip at her heels. She also has a philandering husband — of course she does — and a guilty conscience over a deed she commits in the first episode.
“The deep root of her is insecurity, and the massive pressure of having to continue a legacy that she doesn’t quite understand,” Friel said in a video call from her home in Windsor, England, just west of London. “She’s always been told as a kid that that’s what she has to do. Now she has the pressures of being a mother, and not feeling like she’s good enough, and she’s torn between continuing the legacy and her own wants of stardom and success. It all tears a little bit.”
Friel, born to an Irish father (the folk musician Desi Friel) and an English mother, is one of many non-Americans trying on Texas accents in a story about this seemingly all-American musical genre. Sasse, who plays Luke, is from London. Callum Kerr, who plays a young heartthrob and Nicky’s love interest, Wade Stellings, is Scottish. (Adam Croasdell, who plays Nicky’s ne’er do well husband, is English, but so is his character. No American accents for him.)
As much as country music likes to wrap itself in the American flag, it sprang largely from Irish and Scottish immigrants who brought the fiddle to the United States in the 19th century, and African slaves, who brought the banjo. Country music is, in fact, a melting pot.
That said, the accents could still elicit a double take on set.
“It’s kind of strange to hear these Brits take a break and hang out at craft services with that accent, and then the director says ‘Action!’ and they’re immediately from East Texas,” said Adkins, a Louisiana native. “I don’t know how they do that. It’s amazing.”
“Monarch” was originally slated to premiere on Jan. 30, right after the N.F.C. Championship. But Covid-19 invaded the show’s Georgia set just a few weeks before the debut and shut down production. Some episodes were ready, but others weren’t; Fox faced the decision to release the episodes in separate chunks, or to wait to debut. The network chose the latter.
Now, with a premiere on Sept. 11 — the first Sunday of the N.F.L.’s regular season — Fox can once again use its pro football broadcasts to promote the series.
“We were faced with what would’ve likely been a very spotty air schedule, which is not good for any new show, but especially not a serialized character drama,” said Thorn, the Fox Entertainment president. “Now we have all the episodes locked and finished. And we’ve been able to create a marketing and launch strategy to capitalize on the extra time that many platforms don’t usually have the ability to take advantage of.”
Appropriately, much of that strategy revolves around music. Streaming services are already offering songs from the series, including “A Country Boy Can Survive,” sung by Adkins, and “American Cowgirl,” sung by Friel. More will follow.
The “Monarch” creative team hopes viewers might come for the music and stay for the murder, sex and betrayal, not to mention the country couture.
“I believe all of that will bring in a huge audience of women, who hopefully will fall in love with our sisters and either be rooting for Nicky or Gigi or both and will see themselves in the stories and the emotion,” Hilfers said.
“This is the story of a woman who’s just trying to live her dreams and dealing with her crazy family amidst the most pressure you can possibly imagine,” she added. “I think that’s something that everybody in any state can relate to.”