Tammy Wynette and George Jones are easily two of the most influential artists in country music history. Their marriage started as a passionate meeting of two musical minds but descended into tragic toxicity before their divorce and the increasingly unfortunate circumstances that followed. "George & Tammy," Showtime's new entry in the thriving stream of music biopics, is a testament to that cavalcade of events leading up to Wynette's tragic fate.
The series, created by Abe Sylvia ("The Eyes of Tammy Faye") and directed and executive produced by John Hillcoat ("The Road"), is, of course, based on the real-life relationship and catastrophes of the country music legends. It nonetheless enters a crowded field of media highlighting a relationship between entertainers, one rising, the other struggling to cope (think every adaptation of "A Star Is Born" among others). The longer-form medium that is the limited series is a friend here, giving more time to flesh out the details of Wynette and Jones' tumultuous life together and backed up by excellent performances.
Ultimately, "George & Tammy" is a worthwhile entry in the musical biopic genre. Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain are nuanced and powerful as the doomed musical lovers, and the series as a whole is a well-scripted and in-depth look into those lives in their world. While the initial episodes are promising, it breaks apart somewhat in the series' last third, rushing through the endgame for several major characters and losing some of its narrative focus in a conclusion that would benefit from more time and a little room to breathe. Still, "George & Tammy" is a strong dramatic outing showcasing two excellent dramatic talents at the top of their game, and for that, it's a worthy watch.
A Well Portrayed Set Of Downward Spirals
"George & Tammy" follows Tammy Wynette (Jessica Chastain) as she navigates her career and complex string of relationships. She begins the series as a hopeful country music star who meets older legend George Jones (Michael Shannon), a charismatic country star with a reputation for hard living. The pair quickly fall in love and get married in Mexico, setting off a passionate relationship that sours as Jones fails to corral his drinking and unhinged behaviors. She ends up marrying songwriter and producer George Richey (Steve Zahn), a fateful choice that contributes to her battle with substance abuse and tragic early death.
Chastain's turn as a guarded Wynette on a slow downward spiral is a strong and tragic portrayal. She captures the singer's on-stage charisma, and her early lust for the stage, all through the closed-off desperation and resignation of her later years. Shannon's George Jones is a well-performed tragic figure, a man who habitually drowns his chances for happiness at the bottom of a bottle until it's far too late to fix it. The character requires a strong degree of nuance, balancing the character's aggressive tendencies against both his weak helplessness and his evolving regret. The pair have a strong chemistry that drives the series, even as Wynette and Jones are severed. Steve Zahn is similarly solid as the manipulatively menacing George Richey, a man whose destructive tendencies are more subtle than Jones' but at least as dangerous.
On a technical level, "George & Tammy" succeeds. The editing is tight and precise, contributing towards an engaging flow and strong pace, while its cinematography, all shot by Igor Martinovic ("The Outsider"), does a strong job of enhancing the character's emotions and capturing their subjectivity. We spend a lot of time in close proximity to our troubled protagonists, and when they're lost to drugs and alcohol (particularly when they have their performative game face on) there's a clever use of focus and movement to suggest their impaired state. It compliments nuanced performances and builds a strong understanding of what Jones and Wynette are experiencing. Altogether this makes for an engaging look at characters whose love is complicated by a tragically interlocking set of vices.
He Stopped Loving Her Never
"George & Tammy" is a well-scripted series overall with strong dialogue, and the series' first half is well-paced with steadily engaging momentum and a good balance between its major players. While the series' performances are routinely good, the season as a whole is an uneven affair as it moves along. It suffers once the titular pair are apart, which makes sense in a series so intimately tied to their collective tale that it was named "George & Tammy." The complex and loving toxicity that permeates their time together produces a well-focused narrative thread that unravels once they do. It's not enough to dampen the series' impact on its own, but it's easy to see the series' struggles with narrative cohesion in the last two episodes.
It's also worth noting that the series loses considerable emotional potential and insight by moving swiftly through life events: Richey's controlling actions, Wynette's increasing unwellness and evident lack of control, the growing alienation between Jones and his daughter, all important events that are slid through when compared to the first four episodes. Many significant real-life moments, like her curious abduction that her daughters swear was faked to cover up domestic abuse, are clear and alluded to but the surrounding circumstances and aftermath could give us a greater window into her unhealthy new relationship and its impact on her family.
"George & Tammy" is a strong show that manages to trace the myriad tragedies involved in the coming together and falling apart of two of country music history's brighter stars. It captures the tragedy well thanks to a pair of stunning central performances by its leads, but it feels like a rushed errand at those very late-life moments that had the largest impact on Wynette's untimely demise. In an era where too many movies and series are excessively long, it's the rarity that deserves at least one more episode to build the impact of its bleak finale.
You can watch "George & Tammy" on Showtime starting December 4th, 2022.
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