EXCLUSIVE: Anyone who tuned into the first two episodes of Monarch, Fox’s primetime soap that stars Susan Sarandon and Trace Adkins as the king and queen of country music, saw uncomfortable parallels to the real-life death of Naomi Judd. Besides depicting how Dottie Cantrell Roman (Sarandon) orchestrates her own suicide in the premiere, the drama’s second episode on September 20 featured a funeral that was meticulously organized by Dottie before her death — just like what Judd did before committing suicide in April.
The fictitious funeral in Monarch even featured the popular Judd song “Love Can Build a Bridge,” which was sung by Wynonna Judd during the televised memorial for her mom.
Here, Monarch executive producer Jon Feldman, who replaced Michael Rauch on the drama last November, talks about the “eerie” coincidences in the series’ first two episodes and whether there was any talk about changing certain scenes after Judd’s passing.
DEADLINE: Was the pilot already in the can when you joined the project?
JON FELDMAN: Yes. We did additional photography but the bulk of the pilot had already been shot. The show had been developed for several years. So a lot of these decisions were made in relation to Susan’s availability. She was only available for certain amounts of time and certain number of episodes. But those were decisions made prior to my arrival.
DEADLINE: Sarandon is such a stand-out in the pilot. Was there a part of you that wanted to say, wait a minute … can we reconsider killing her off?
FELDMAN: It’s a fair question. We certainly do our best to keep Susan alive and part of the show, both on screen and with the looming presence she has in this family and the things she was involved in that lead to mysteries and secrets before her death. Susan is a star. She’s amazing. And honestly, as a writer, I loved writing for her. We have several episodes coming up where she has some extensive stories in flashbacks, which were so much fun to write because Susan just elevates everything she touches. So if we’re lucky enough to get a Season 2, we have a lot of plans for making Susan a part of it.
DEADLINE: Even before the death of Naomi Judd, the parallels to the Judds are pretty striking, right down to the massive, auburn up-do on Susan’s head and how she’s mom to two very talented daughters [played by Anna Friel and Beth Ditto]. When you joined the show, did you ask if the story was loosely based on the Judds?
FELDMAN: From what I knew about the show, it was inspired by the lives of many country artists. It drew from that world. One of the producers is Jason Owen, who’s a top music manager in Nashville. Until the death of Naomi, which was really the most tragic and eerie of coincidences, there was no [similarities] between the Romans and the Judds. The Romans are a fictional first family of country. But really, the turn of events of Naomi’s death was something no one could have predicted.
DEADLINE: What was that moment like for you when you learned of Naomi Judd’s death?
FELDMAN: Honestly, it was one of those truth-is-stranger-than-fiction moments. It was tragic, first of all. But it was also eerie in some of the parallels. Like I said first and foremost, it was just a tragic incident. I mean, it was a turn of events that in retrospect is eerily similar to some of the things we dive into in the show.
DEADLINE: Were there discussions about maybe tweaking a few things — like the song “Love Can Build a Bridge” that was sung at Dottie’s funeral — since that obviously happened in real life?
FELDMAN: No. That was another eerie coincidence. As I said, Jason Owen, who was a producer on our show and was heavily involved in production and music, was also very close to the Judds and was involved in the producing of her real-life funeral. No one knew that Naomi had made that decision to have that song. We were already done with our production by the time she passed away. Our cast had scattered all around the world and production was over. So we didn’t have an opportunity to reshoot anything.
DEADLINE: So are the details surrounding Dottie’s suicide going to change in the coming episode?
FELDMAN: Remember her final words were, “I’ve done something that can never be forgiven.” That drives one of the mysteries over the course of the first season. What did Dottie do? What is she referring to? Her children speculate that she’s just referring to being a woman who put her career first and her children second. But the truth is there are criminal secrets in her past. That is one of the ongoing storylines that the family uncovers over the course of the first season.
DEADLINE: Do those secrets have anything to do with those scenes featuring Dottie’s husband Albie, played by Trace Adkins, digging a hole in the wilderness?
FELDMAN: Tangentially, they are tied together. But there are actually twin mysteries that share a common thread and that’s going to be revealed as we go forward.
DEADLINE: Will we find out by season’s end who Albie buried?
FELDMAN: Yes. That happens three months later so the two timelines are going to converge in episode six, and we’re gonna start to put together exactly what happens that leads to that digging. In episode seven, we’re going to see everything that took place on the night of the digging. In the pilot, he grabs the gun and then you see him shoot someone off camera, and then you see digging. All those events are going to be tied together by episode seven, and then going forward from episode seven, there will be an aftermath to all that, which will just amp up the stakes. We will end the season with other cliffhangers rooted in the story and characters.