Showtime’s “George & Tammy” Should Probably Be Called “Tammy & George”

George Jones is a larger-than-life character, but it's Jessica Chastain's portrayal of Tammy Wynette that makes this six-part miniseries worth watching

December 2, 2022 6:49 am
Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain as George Jones and Tammy Wynette in "George & Tammy"
Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain as George Jones and Tammy Wynette in "George & Tammy"

There’s something to be said for the freewheeling party tracks or the restless odes to the Old West, but for my money, the best country songs are the ones that are full of regret — the ones whose protagonists weep into their beer about love lost and opportunities squandered because they can’t stop getting in their own way. There’s something especially tragic about self-sabotage, and so many of the genre’s most devastating classics essentially amount to some version of “I’m a real son of a bitch, and I’m sad about it because it’s too late to change.”

George Jones certainly relied on that formula for a good portion of his most enduring hits — widely and correctly regarded as some of the best ever, country or otherwise — and as anyone even vaguely familiar with him already knows, he lived his life like a country song, too. The legendary singer, dubbed “No Show Jones” on account of the gnarly substance abuse problem that plagued him for decades and led to countless canceled performances, lost more than the paychecks he surrendered by failing to appear at scheduled gigs. His notorious drinking habit made him a folk hero of sorts thanks to darkly funny tales of his drunken hijinks that become sad if you think about them for more than 30 seconds — most famously, when he drove a John Deere lawnmower down the highway to get to a bar and get his fix after his wife at the time hid all of his car keys — but it also cost him plenty of friends and alienated his family, leading to the demise of several marriages, including, most heartbreakingly, his union with fellow country superstar and frequent collaborator Tammy Wynette.

That tumultuous relationship serves as the source material for George & Tammy, a new six-part miniseries that debuts on Showtime on Dec. 4 with Jessica Chastain as Wynette and Michael Shannon as Jones. Both actors deliver inspired performances as the star-crossed lovers, hitting all the emotional notes the roles call for and even doing their own singing. (The latter is one of the series’ most questionable creative decisions; Chastain and Shannon are both talented-enough singers, but there’s no comparing their vocals to Jones and Wynette’s. Shannon in particular is faced with an impossible task — he already doesn’t look anything like George Jones, and no matter how accurately he replicates his unique phrasing, stretching an extra syllable or two out of the word “barren” on “Take Me,” there’s no way he can come anywhere close to sounding like one of the best singers of all time.)

Jones is a larger-than-life character, and he’s the exact type that Shannon has built a career portraying — unhinged and violent at times, charismatic and quick-witted at others. But at times, he feels almost too much in the actor’s wheelhouse, like we’re watching Shannon doing his Michael Shannon Thing instead of watching George Jones. That’s not entirely his fault; because George & Tammy focuses on its two subjects only as they relate to one another, we never really get a nuanced portrait of the “He Stopped Loving Her Today” singer. His late-career comeback is glossed over, and at times he comes off like a caricature. It’s easy forget that for all the pain he inflicted on himself and those who loved him, he actually wound up with a happy ending: a decades-long marriage to his fourth wife, Nancy Sepulvado, who Jones credited with saving his life and helping him achieve lasting sobriety. (He got clean for good in 1999, staying sober — and married to Sepulvado — until his death at the age of 81 in 2013.)

Of course, self-destruction and guilt may make for more compelling songs, but in real life, it’s the stuff we can’t control that’s saddest of all, and George & Tammy serves as a reminder that for all the lore surrounding Jones, it’s actually Wynette whose story is most tragic. Once on top of the world as the “First Lady of Country Music,” she simply couldn’t catch a break, jumping from bad marriage to bad marriage, enduring abuse, addiction and a series of health problems before finally succumbing to the latter at age 55 in 1998. For all the time it spends devoted to the electric chemistry between Jones and Wynette (and, by extension, between Shannon and Chastain), the show also goes out of its way to remind us why their relationship was untenable, depicting Jones’ violent, drunken outbursts and giving special attention to the incident that finally inspired her to leave, when Jones returned from a Christmastime bender and proceeded to chase her through their house with a shotgun, firing at her as she ran out the door. (Wynette chronicled this in her autobiography, but Jones denied it ever happened.) After a botched hysterectomy left her with a build-up of scar tissue and lifelong problems with her gall bladder and intestines, she developed an addiction to the opiates doctors prescribed her to manage the pain — one that would later be exploited by her fifth and final husband, George Richey.

Richey, a songwriter who wrote hits for both Jones and Wynette (most notably “The Grand Tour” for the former), was by many accounts a leech, someone who swooped in when the “Stand By Your Man” singer was vulnerable, loaded her up with as many powerful painkillers as he could get his hands on and wormed his way into her life, eventually becoming her manager and taking control of her finances. The final episodes of George & Tammy depict him as an absolute monster, one who vandalized his future wife’s home to scare her and manipulate her and regularly would inject her with drugs to get her to agree to whatever he wanted while she was zonked out of her mind. The series alleges that the bizarre 1978 kidnapping incident — where Wynette claimed she was brutally attacked by an armed man who had been hiding in the backseat of her unlocked car, only to eventually be released 80 miles away — was actually a story concocted by Richey and Wynette to explain the bruises that Richey himself had inflicted upon her, beating her up just days before she was slated to head out on tour. It also suggests that Richey essentially drove Wynette to an early grave, ignoring doctors’ warnings about her health and later inheriting the majority of her estate after the yellow notepads Wynette wrote out her will on (and, according to her daughters, left everything to them instead of Richey) mysteriously disappeared.

George & Tammy attempts to set the record straight on the circumstances surrounding Wynette’s downward spiral, and it goes out of its way to argue that she never received the recognition she deserves as an icon of the genre, even pointing out in its epilogue that Jones’ 10 career No. 1 singles are “just 10 shy of Tammy’s 20.” It takes a few glaring creative liberties (Jones’s friend Earl “Peanutt” Montgomery never pressed charges after the singer fired a gun at him in real life, for example, but here we see Jones standing before a judge, charged with attempted murder, delivering an impassioned plea for forgiveness that inspires him to drop the charges). But for the most part, the series feels determined to right some historical wrongs and finally give Wynette her flowers. It’s just a shame that the only way they saw fit to do so was by focusing almost entirely on her relationships to the men who made her life hell.

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