Country music fans who tuned in to FOX’s new country music drama Monarch On Tuesday night you may have noticed some parallels with recent events in the genre. The soap opera’s iconic character, Dottie Roman, a legendary country music matriarch who heads the first country music family, is played by Susan Sarandon. She is diagnosed with cancer, and with only months to live, Dottie is determined to live on her own terms. She plans her star funeral and then chooses to end her life by taking a lethal dose of pills in her bedroom, with one of her daughters by her side.
Beloved Country Music Hall of Fame icon Naomi Judd, who music fans know as one half of the mother-daughter duo The Judds, killed herself in her bedroom last spring. She also planned her funeral in advance, and the Judds’ hit “Love Can Build a Bridge” was performed at Judd’s funeral, as well as her fictional farewell in Monarch.
The Judds, made up of Naomi and her daughter Wynonna, were planning a final tour and documentary with music industry veteran Jason Owen when Naomi Judd died. Owen is also an executive producer on Monarch and says the similarities are purely coincidental and that Sarandon Monarch The scenes were filmed months before Judd’s death.
“What feels like art imitating life is truly one of the weirdest, saddest, creepiest coincidences I’ve ever seen,” Owen tells PEOPLE.
After reading the Monarch script in 2019, FOX committed to the drama’s initial script, and the story was finalized two years before Judd’s death. In May 2021, the network officially ordered the series. The cast began production in September and finished filming the first few episodes that fall. Monarch It was supposed to premiere in January 2022 after the NFL championship game, but the debut was delayed due to COVID-19. However, Judd had not seen the episodes, nor did she or her family know of the plot before she died in April 2022.
When Owen dreamed up the character’s funeral, it was crucial to him and creator Melissa London Hilfers that the fanfare harked back to other high-profile sendoffs like those of Johnny Cash, Tammy Wynette and George Jones. He explains that Dottie is the fanciful queen of country music, so she deserves a legendary country funeral.
“They are icons and they deserve these great celebrations of life,” he says. “That’s where we got the idea for the over-the-top funeral.”
Owen chose most of the music for the show, including “Love Can Build a Bridge” in the funeral scene. A Judds fan since childhood, Owen had been working on The Judds tour and thought it was a way to remind people of the duo’s music. He, too, needed a song that would allow Dottie and her sister, Nellie, to sing it together.
“The Judds are literally my all-time favorites,” he says. “I was producing their entire tour, and they had their last performance, which was ‘Love Can Build a Bridge’ on CMT. Then the tragic events start to unfold. It’s just another incredible coincidence. But it’s also something I care deeply about: Wynonna and the family thought.
Owen also produced Judd’s funeral for CMT. When he was in the midst of planning his final arrangements through his pain and shock, all he could think about was making sure every detail was perfect so the family would feel at peace. The striking similarities between art and reality hit him after the funeral when he went back to work watching cuts of Monarch episodes
“Out of friendship, love and respect for the Judd family, I called Wynonna and Greg Hill, [manager for the Naomi Judd Estate]to make sure they were aware of Monarch and his story long before it aired.
The Judds was Owen’s first gig as a child, and he had begun to feel like part of their family working so closely with them over the years. It was his idea to bring them back and produce one final tour, which he thought would be the last time Naomi would ever take the stage. He wanted to make sure they got the legacy they deserved.
“I was in their life during these big comeback moments when we put the arena tour on sale, and they basically sold out. Then they have this amazing comeback at the CMT Awards, where all the artists are fawning over them. It was exactly how I wanted the People will remember how amazing these two women are. I’ve been there at all of their high points. Now I’m also part of their low point.”
The writers didn’t model the Romans after the Judds, and Owen says it’s important for viewers to understand that the TV family isn’t modeled after anyone in particular. The Romans come from many influential country music families.
“Right now, we all live in a really divided country,” says Owen. “When times are tough, you look for something to give you a break from all the noise. That’s one of the things I loved about classic soap operas from Dynasty a Dallas. I hope people get the same kind of enjoyment and escape from Monarch. It’s an over-the-top, hilarious Texas-sized drama that showcases country music and its big stars in a very glamorous way with long hair, amazing clothes, incredible scandals, and great music. It’s everything I dreamed it would be.”
The ratings indicate that this is precisely what is happening. Initial show locations for the series Monarch as the No. 1 scripted debut of 2022, beating the next highest-rated drama on broadcast and cable television, house of the dragonby 50 percent.
Monarch airs at 9 pm ET on Tuesdays on FOX.