‘George & Tammy’ Mixes the Delicious and the Dour — Just as the Couple Did

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A man with short dark hair, wearing a dark sweater faces a smiling blonde woman in a pink and white dress. They gaze at each other lovingly with a studio microphone hanging over their heads.
George Jones (Michael Shannon) and Tammy Wynette (Jessica Chastain) share an idyllic moment in the studio before the chaos erupts again. (Dana Hawley/Courtesy of SHOWTIME)

Before they even met, Tammy Wynette and George Jones were both supremely talented but breathtakingly messy humans. Once the country music legends got together (both personally and professionally), their chemistry was irresistible, but entirely too combustible behind closed doors.

At his worst, Jones was selfish, violent and the most destructive of alcoholics. He ditched out on tours, fired guns at people in drunken rages and had zero qualms about driving under the influence — even if it was on a lawnmower because his wife had hidden his car keys. Wynette gave as good as she got: possessive, emotionally manipulative and addicted to painkillers and other prescriptions. The story of Jones and Wynette’s life together is one for the ages — even if their marriage only did last six years.

Given that Wynette died in 1998 and Jones passed on in 2013, it’s a little surprising that the world has had to wait this long for a good fictionalized account of their story. (The 1981 TV movie Stand By Your Man remains legendary for its terrible wigs, though.) Enter Showtime with George & Tammy, a six-part limited series premiering on Dec. 4.

Both Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain do an admirable job of filling Jones’ and Wynette’s cowboy boots — not an easy task given the stars’ iconic status. The job at hand is made all the more challenging by the fact that Chastain and Shannon provide the vocals for Jones and Wynette’s hits themselves here. While both actors are good singers, unsurprisingly neither can match the vocal prowess of the musicians they are playing — something that grows particularly grating during some of Wynette’s musical numbers.

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One benefit to having the actors doing the singing, however, is that Chastain and Shannon actually have better onstage chemistry than the real-life Jones and Wynette generally did. In real life, Jones’ habit of never playing a song the same way twice often clumsily collided with Wynette’s stilted perfectionism. In George & Tammy, the couple are always better together than they are apart — a delightful embellishment that is fun to watch.

George & Tammy is excellent at picking out and recreating all of the most important steps in Jones and Wynette’s personal stories and careers, even if the timeline isn’t always exactly right. The show is admirably unflinching when it comes to portraying Jones’ most undignified behavior, down to “Dee-Doodle,” his disturbing, cocaine-fueled, duck-voiced alter-ego. The series also understands the variety of abuses that Wynette endured in the three (of her five) marriages that are depicted here, as well as the very real physical ailments that resulted in her addiction issues.

That being said, there is some uncomfortable fabrication in George & Tammy (Wynette being present for Jones’ recording of “He Stopped Loving Her Today”? Poppycock!), as well as some glaring omissions. The famous feminist backlash against Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man” is reduced to a single three-second exchange, for example.

In Season 2 of country music history podcast Cocaine and Rhinestones, the true story of George Jones and Tammy Wynette is told in painstakingly researched detail. Where George & Tammy was based almost entirely on their daughter Georgette’s memoir, the makers of Cocaine and Rhinestones read every book and biography on the topic, fact-checked details and then parsed out the most likely conclusions. That’s probably the best approach when the two people at the center of the story are consistently unreliable narrators — whether for drug, image or ego-related reasons.

Though George & Tammy is an infinitely more moving depiction of Jones and Wynette’s lives than was offered in the podcast, anyone who has listened to Cocaine and Rhinestones will struggle with the way some of Wynette’s less flattering character traits are omitted from the show. The many times she was caught in major lies, Wynette’s pursuit of her friends’ boyfriends for sport, the unconvincingly applied makeup bruises after her now-infamous falsified kidnapping — all absent from George & Tammy. (And, in the interest of avoiding spoilers, let’s just say the culprit behind the mysterious graffiti on Wynette’s house looks very different in George & Tammy from how it was presented in the podcast.)

There can be no doubt that the real-life Wynette was a resilient, hard-working and determined woman who was an excellent mother to her four daughters. There’s no questioning her musical clout either. The problem with George & Tammy is that its depiction of her relies too heavily on the sanitized, victim-centric picture that Wynette painted of herself when she was alive. Because of that, some of the most complicated and fascinating aspects of Wynette’s character are absent here.

All that being said, while George & Tammy might not be as definitive or clear-cut about the facts as Cocaine and Rhinestones was, as told here the couple’s story is more powerful. By the end, I found myself pondering the nature of intimate human relationships. Which ones are fated and which are happenstance? Why do some truly great partnerships burn out while other merely average ones go the distance? And why is the public so reluctant to let some celebrity relationships die, even when the couple in question is patently unhealthy for one another?

You won’t find all of the answers in George & Tammy — but you will have a damn good time watching it.