George and Tammy Review: Jessica Chastain and Michael Shannon Rock

John Hillcoat is directing Showtime’s six-part series about George Jones and Tammy Wynette’s ill-fated romance, adapted from their daughter’s memoir.

The last scene in the first episode of “George & Tammy” is almost too good for words – and by “good” I mean “hotter than the surface of the sun”. Tammy Wynette (Jessica Chatain), her husband Don Chapel (Pat Healy) and their six children obediently sit around the dining table, chatting not-so-politely to the evening’s honored guest: Mr. George Jones (Michael Shannon). In 1968, George is already a country music icon, and he’s made his way into the Chapel family’s home through sheer willpower: he’s given the aspiring singer hot looks, turned up unannounced at her recording sessions and gifted her a tour bus when her husband’s station wagon was no longer sufficient, and generally imposing his considerable presence in her life until good southern manners dictated a meal together.

Tammy never encourages his advances—that would be unseemly—but she can hardly contain her passion behind the right etiquette. As he sneaks in to watch her warm up, the effort it takes to break eye contact with her famous bow tie on the wall is telling. Her voice doesn’t break when George shows up unexpectedly in the studio, but the whole atmosphere gets awkward when he leans on the door and she spells “DIVORCE” into the mic. Their connection is so palpable that when George turns down a welcome cocktail at her home, it’s as if the notorious alcoholic is already on his knees.

Now, old Don isn’t blind to what’s going on between his wife and her all-time favorite musician. He knows George’s reputation as a fun-loving, hard-drinking savage – writer Abe Sylvia (“The Eyes of Tammy Faye”) pictures him collapsed in a toilet stall, too drunk to get up on his own but sober enough to make fun of him do bandmates with goofy voices — so the mere fact that George stayed sober during his silent courtship of Tammy tells Don all he needs to know. Without a word of romantic intent, the megastar’s charm offensive is strong enough to crush any honorable, confident partner — two words inappropriate to Don, a “man” who takes pictures of his wife in the shower without asking permission are. So of course he gets drunk at the fateful family dinner and – overwhelmed by the simmering sexual tension between George & Tammy despite being surrounded by five kids and a baby – he snaps.

“You’re going to fuck my wife, aren’t you?” Don asks George. The room falls silent. George, surprised by his frankness but not dissuaded in the slightest, apologizes to the children before giving an answer. “You know…” he begins, while every pulse in the room quickens, “I’d really like that, Don.” He then looks at Tammy, who matches his gaze without breaking an appreciative smile or a critical look. She just sits there, floating in her chair – not fidgeting so much, just floating as if she’s about to drift off this earth and into a nirvana that only George can provide. And when Don delivers another insult, George turns the table, looks at Tammy, and offers just that: “You love me, right?” he says. “Yes, I do,” she replies, finally confirming their mutual fixation. “Let’s go then.”

And gone they were. According to the events of Showtime’s six-part limited series, George & Tammy, the two singer-songwriters were forever linked from that moment, and while their romance proved unhappy, the duo’s undeniable love never truly faded. Unfortunately, that’s all Sylvia’s series has to say about Mr. and Mrs. Country Music (as her tour bus once said). The series picks up after its barn burner of an opening act, ticking off the staples of music biopics — alcohol, drug addiction, financial struggles — rather than exploring each character (or their music) beyond their relationship to one another.

Michael Shannon as George Jones in GEORGE & TAMMY, We'll Hold On. Photo credit: Dana Hawley/Courtesy of SHOWTIME.

Michael Shannon in “George & Tammy”

Dana Hawley / Courtesy of SHOWTIME

Director John Hillcoat may put “Western” in Country & Western, but “The Proposition” Helmer makes an odd fit here. It mutes the vivid colors of two noticeable Dressers with tan-brown shadows and lets its leads fill the frame with lots of sustained close-ups. Shannon and Chastain give it their all, belting out their own vocals while performing full-length renditions of the couple’s country classics. They capture an intriguing chemistry – a combination of large-scale bravado and raw sexual allure rarely seen in modern entertainment – but on their own they can’t help but reiterate familiar beats in a sprawling film that captures the best of the couple covers well-known moments.

Whether you’re a lifelong fan of the duo or a newbie desperate to learn more about two of the genre’s brightest stars, you know what’s going to happen at every turn — well, everything after George and Tammy becomes George & Tammy became. Just watch the one episode – hell, the one scene, and you’re done.

Grade: C+

George & Tammy premieres Sunday, December 4th at 9pm ET on Showtime and Paramount Network. New episodes are exclusive to Showtime – streaming on Fridays and linear on Sundays.

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Lindsay Lowe

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