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George & Tammy Wastes Jessica Chastain and Michael Shannon

The Showtime series takes six hours to say almost nothing about country music legends.
  • Jessica Chastain and Michael Shannon in George & Tammy (Photo: Dana Hawley/Showtime)
    Jessica Chastain and Michael Shannon in George & Tammy (Photo: Dana Hawley/Showtime)

    Here’s a convenient story from Showtime’s limited series George & Tammy: An on-screen graphic indicates it’s 1995, just three years before Tammy Wynette’s death. We see her recording a eurodance song that undermines her status as a country legend, but she has to do it because her no-account husband insists she “stay relevant.” Besides, Tammy (Jessica Chastain) is so addicted to pain medication that she’s got to keep the money coming in somehow.

    Meanwhile, her ex-husband, country music legend George Jones (Michael Shannon), gives a radio interview about how pop music is destroying the genre that made him famous. His point is underscored by Billy Ray Cyrus’ “Achy Breaky Heart,” which we’re reminded is a pop-country blockbuster at the exact moment George is complaining. It’s a tidy way to demonstrate the thesis that George and Tammy’s pure love and authentic music were almost too good for a world that betrayed them. They were gentle souls torn apart by their demons and the unfeeling music business. They never stood a chance.

    This would be more moving if it weren’t so bogus. For one thing, the years are all wrong. “Achy Breaky Heart” was a hit in 1992, and Tammy Wynette recorded the thundering club anthem “Justified and Ancient” in 1991. Biographical series aren’t required to get every fact correct, of course, and a fudged timeline can even benefit the drama. But there’s no obvious reason these scenes should be dated incorrectly. It’s not like anything happens to link them to 1995, or really to any particular time. The entire series unfolds in a type of limbo, just one recording studio or green room after another, that makes it feel removed from any moment at all. If it weren’t for a few shots at the famous Ryman Auditorium, it could almost pass as a saga about rock musicians in the ‘80s or a polka band in the Depression. So in the rare moments when something as verifiable as a video shoot gets invoked, it’s bizarre to insist it’s happening during Clinton’s presidency instead of George H.W. Bush’s.

    It’s stranger still for series creator Abe Sylvia to be so incurious about what these moments mean for his characters. In real life, “Justified and Ancient” was a global smash that introduced Wynette to a new audience, and George Jones, for all his documented frustration with pop country, was an architect of the string-drenched “countrypolitan” style that was also once perceived as a betrayal of country music’s roots. This complicates and deepens the musical legacy of both artists, and it might’ve been fuel for interesting arguments. But George & Tammy isn’t much interested in complexity.

    That’s likely why Jones’ second wife, Shirley Ann Corley, is entirely erased from the story, even though his relationship with her was a thorn in his marriage to Tammy. Without Shirley Ann, it’s easier to frame the leads as an almost mythical couple. Similarly, though the show depicts Wynette being forced to get shock treatments as a young, pregnant woman and later getting a botched hysterectomy that leads to decades of complications, it does almost nothing to investigate how this affected her. Instead of letting her talk about it or even visualizing her mindset, it just returns to two tropes. We either see her singing heartbreak songs that kinda-sorta reflect her troubled life, or we see her abusing painkillers.

    Wynette really did endure abuse and addiction, and she really did connect with her fans because her songs were seen as stand-ins for her struggles. But because it reduces so much of her life to scenes of singing or scenes of doping, the series mostly seems uninterested in her. It treats Jones the same way. When we don’t see him singing, we see him getting drunk.

    Granted, country music itself is built on such mythologizing. In Jones’ ballad “The Grand Tour,” a description of the furniture in an empty house makes a lost love feel cosmically tragic. In Wynette’s classic “Stand By Your Man,” the refrain of a woman going back to her husband becomes liturgical, a ritualized affirmation that marriage means sticking it out. There may have been a way for George & Tammy to give all those drinking, drugging, and singing scenes a similar, archetypal heft, but unlike a three-minute single, the show is almost six hours long. There is so little variation in how it repeats its favorite themes that they become numbing, not transcendent.

    The characters around George and Tammy are just as flat. George’s friend and songwriting partner Earl “Peanutt” Montgomery (Walton Goggins) is an ineffectual voice of reason who keeps trying and failing to make his buddy dry out. Tammy’s final husband George Richey (Steve Zahn) is an abuser and manipulator who constantly injects her with meds. Even George and Tammy’s daughter Georgette (Abby Glover), whose memoir is the source for the show, is mostly around to disapprove of her parents’ every move. Again, it might have heightened the impact of George and Tammy’s demons to see these characters repeat their single-minded actions — enable, endanger, insult — but that would’ve required more texture in the writing and the performances.

    And those supporting performances really aren’t much. Thanks to The Righteous Gemstones and The White Lotus, respectively, Goggins and Zahn are both coming off remarkable showcases for their gifts, and one wonders if their characters here looked more robust on the page. The same goes for Tim Blake Nelson, who makes a brief, inconsequential cameo as country singer Roy Acuff, and Letterkenney star Kelly McCormack, who gets a few teary lines as George Richey’s first wife.

    Chastain and Shannon at least have some great moments. They both do their own singing, and they’re so good that they could cut a country album right now. In the early episodes, they also have real heat as they start to fall for each other. In the show’s most exciting sequence, Tammy cuts George’s hair in the men’s room at a concert venue, and their chemistry could melt a candle. It’s all sassy banter and awkward pauses, and even better, it’s happening while Tammy’s then-husband Don (Pat Healy) eavesdrops from a stall. That adds to the sense of danger and lust and inevitability, and for a moment, the show achieves the sense of grand, doomed attraction that the sad-eyed drinking montages can never conjure up.

    George & Tammy premieres Sunday, December 4 at 9:00 PM ET on Showtime and the Showtime app. After that, weekly episodes premiere Fridays on the app and Sundays on broadcast.

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    Mark Blankenship has been writing about arts and culture for twenty years, with bylines in The New York Times, Variety, Vulture, Fortune, and many others. You can hear him on the pop music podcast Mark and Sarah Talk About Songs.

    TOPICS: George & Tammy, Showtime, George Jones, Jessica Chastain, Kelly McCormack, Michael Shannon, Steve Zahn, Tammy Wynette, Tim Blake Nelson, Walton Goggins