“George & Tammy” Debut Episode Lives Up To Expectations

The real life stories of certain country music artists are sometimes even more intriguing and dramatic than the dramatized stories they tell in song. This was certainly the case for George Jones, Tammy Wynette, and their tumultuous marriage and working relationship. Those aware of their country music history have known just how gripping that story could be in movie or serialized form for half a century, if given the right opportunity, the right budget, and a cast that could pull it off.

There has been no shortage of plans and rumors for biopics and dramatic interpretations of country legends over the years. There have been a couple in the works just about George Jones alone. But getting them from the page to the screen has been a feat and a half. And even when they make it there, it often results in a letdown. Just see the reviews for the Hank Williams flick back in 2015 starring Tom Hiddleston.

But luckily for country music fans, that is not the case with George & Tammy. The limited series debuted its first episode on Sunday night, December 4th after Yellowstone, and proved what is possible when you have passion for the subject matter like writer and creator Abe Sylvia does, who took the book of Georgette Jones about her parents and first tried to fit it into movie form before smartly determining there was way more there beyond a 120-minute runtime.

Some will bellyache that Michael Shannon, who plays George Jones, and Jessica Chastain who plays Tammy Wynette, sound nothing like their historical counterparts, and may not look exactly the same either. Well get over it. The creators chose to have the two actors sing their actual parts instead of lip syncing to classic recordings. Of course nobody can sing like George and Tammy. They’re two of the best singers in country music history. But it takes guts to sing your own parts, and it results in more believable moments than playing make believe they can reach the same heights as George and Tammy as vocalists.

*Spoiler Alert*

The debut episode of the six-part series opens with George Jones flushing $100 bills down a Grand Ole Opry toilet—in 1960s money mind you—as his entourage hunts down a metal grinder to cut the lock off the bathroom stall while Roy Acuff croons out the “Wabash Cannonball” to the front of the house. It’s pretty amazing how many of the notorious stories of George Jones make it into the premier episode alone, culminating in George flipping of Tammy Wynette’s dinner table after he gets made at her soon-to-be ex-husband, the meek and hapless Don Chapel.

*END Spoiler Alert*

Of course these are dramatic interpretations of real life events, but the exquisite acting of Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain make everything feel as real as rain. Great setting and costuming also sets you right in the late 60s when the partnership was forged. About the only thing that feels phony is the overly boisterous applause from the live audiences throughout performances. This wasn’t Beatlemania. Country crowds politely listened, and applauded at the end. Tim Blake Nelson isn’t particularly believable as Roy Acuff either.

But the way George & Tammy tells the story through the couple’s songs made this debut episode especially meaningful to country fans. Tammy’s recording of “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” set the backdrop to the 2nd half of the episode, and George’s recording of Don Chapel’s “When The Grass Grows Over Me” is also an important theme. The way Michael Shannon portrays George Jones assessing “When The Grass Grows Over Me” and saying, “That’s morbid. But it’s true,” is a masterpiece of understanding George’s mannerisms and state-of-mind.

Though Chastain will have her opportunities for more unhinged and emotional moments later in the series, Shannon’s portrayal of Jones as a man constantly teetering on the brink of madness, but able to pull it together at the last minute before falling over the edge accurately captures what made Jones such a malevolent and magnanimous character in country history. You never knew when he was going to erupt, and that kept everyone around him on edge, and made George appealing to certain women. He was larger than life, and wild.

The supporting cast also deserves great credit. Walter Goggins portraying Earl “Peanutt” Montgomery, and the others from the George Jones/Tammy Wynette orbit show the depth of the story and characters. The creators even pulled from actual throwback country artists from today to help fill out the cast, including Zachariah Malachi, who plays George’s fiddle player Charlie Justice, and Logan Ledger—who many compare to the singing of George Jones—portraying Jones Boys founding member Georgie Riddle.

The debut episode of a limited series presents a challenge. You have to introduce all the main characters, set the table for a story you can’t assume the audience knows already, and put it all into an entertaining package within an hour. Episode 1 “The Race Is On” wasn’t perfect, but the critical consensus of this series being very well-acted, well-directed, and more or less accurate to the real story is the correct one.

We finally have a series portraying country legends that’s worth the extra effort to seek out on the streaming menu, or setting an appointment to see it broadcast in real time on Showtime. It’s called George & Tammy.

1 3/4 Guns Up (8.5/10)

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