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Jessica Chastain and Michael Shannon Are Golden as ‘George & Tammy,’ but the Flat Biopic Can’t Hold On

John Hillcoat directs Showtime's six-part series on George Jones and Tammy Wynette's star-crossed romance, adapted from their daughter's memoir.

Michael Shannon as George Jones and Jessica Chastain as Tammy Wynette in GEORGE & TAMMY, “The Race Is On". Photo credit: Dana Hawley/Courtesy of SHOWTIME.

Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain in “George & Tammy”

Dana Hawley / Courtesy of SHOWTIME

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.” Sitting obediently around the dinner table, Tammy Wynette (Jessica Chatain), her husband Don Chapel (Pat Healy), and their six kids make not-so-polite small talk with the night’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 home by sheer force of will: casting steamy glances at the up-and-coming singer, showing up at her recording sessions unannounced, gifting her a tour bus when her hubby’s station wagon wouldn’t cut it anymore, and generally imposing his considerable presence on her life until good Southern manners require a meal be shared.

Tammy never encourages his advances — that would be unseemly — but she can barely suppress her passion behind proper etiquette. When he sneaks in to watch her warm up, the effort required just to break eye contact with her famous fly on the wall is telling. Her voice doesn’t crack when George makes an unexpected appearance in studio, but the entire atmosphere grows awkward as he leans on the door and she spells out “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” into the microphone. So palpable is their connection that when George turns down a welcome cocktail at her home, it’s as though the notorious alcoholic is already down on bended knee.

Now, ol’ Don isn’t blind to what’s happening between his wife and her all-time favorite musician. He knows George’s reputation as a fun-loving, hard-drinking wild man — writer Abe Sylvia (“The Eyes of Tammy Faye”) introduces him collapsed in a bathroom stall, too drunk to stand on his own accord but sober enough to mock his bandmates with silly voices — so the mere fact that George has stayed sober throughout his quiet courtship of Tammy tells Don all he needs to know. Without one word of romantic intent, the megastar’s charm offensive is powerful enough to break any honorable, self-assured partner — two words unbecoming of Don, a “man” who snaps photos of his wife in the shower without asking permission. So, of course, he gets drunk at the fateful family dinner, and — overwhelmed by the simmering sexual tension between George & Tammy, even as they’re surrounded by five kiddos and a baby — he snaps.

“You’re gonna fuck my wife, aren’t ya?” Don asks George. The room falls silent. George, taken aback by his candor but not dissuaded in the slightest, apologizes to the children before providing an answer. “You know…” he starts, as every pulse in the room quickens, “I sure would like to, Don.” Then he looks at Tammy, who matches his gaze without cracking an approving smile or critical glare. She just sits there, hovering in her chair — not fidgeting so much as floating, like she’s about to drift off this earth and toward a nirvana only George can provide. And when Don delivers one more insult, George flips the table, looks at Tammy, and offers exactly that: “You love me, right?” he says. “Yes, I do,” she replies, finally confirming their mutual fixation. “Then let’s go.”

And away they went. Per the events in Showtime’s six-part limited series, “George & Tammy,” the two singer-songwriters were bonded forever from that moment forward, and while their romance proved ill-fated, the duo’s irrefutable love never really went away. Unfortunately, that’s about all Sylvia’s series has to say about Mr. and Mrs. Country Music (as their tour bus once read). The series falls in line after its barnburner of an opening act, checking off music biopic staples — drinking, drug addiction, financial disputes — rather than explore each character (or their music) beyond their relationship to each other.

Michael Shannon as George Jones in GEORGE & TAMMY, ìWeíre Gonna Hold Onî. Photo credit: Dana Hawley/Courtesy of SHOWTIME.

Michael Shannon in “George & Tammy”

Dana Hawley / Courtesy of SHOWTIME

Director John Hillcoat may put the “western” in Country & Western, but “The Proposition” helmer makes for an odd fit here. He subdues the vivid colors of two flashy dressers with brown-and-tan drenched shadows, and lets his leads fill the frame with plenty of sustained close-ups. Shannon and Chastain give it their all, belting out their own vocals during full renditions of the couple’s country classics. They capture an arresting chemistry — a combination of big-screen bravado and raw sexual attraction rarely seen in modern entertainment — but on their own, they can’t help but repeat familiar beats in what amounts to a stretched-out movie covering the couple’s most well-known moments.

Whether you’re a lifelong fan of the duo or a newcomer eager to learn about two of the genre’s brightest stars, you know what’s going to happen every step of the way — well, everything after George and Tammy become George & Tammy. Just watch the one episode– hell, the one scene, and you’ll be all set.

Grade: C+

“George & Tammy” premieres Sunday, December 4 at 9 p.m. ET on Showtime and Paramount Network. New episodes will be exclusive to Showtime — Fridays on streaming and Sundays on linear TV.

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