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‘George & Tammy’ stands by its stars in an oft-told musical tale with a country twang

<i>Dana Hawley/SHOWTIME</i><br/>Jessica Chastain as Tammy Wynette (left) and Michael Shannon as George Jones are pictured here in the Showtime limited series
Dana Hawley/Courtesy of SHOWTIME
Dana Hawley/SHOWTIME
Jessica Chastain as Tammy Wynette (left) and Michael Shannon as George Jones are pictured here in the Showtime limited series "George & Tammy."

Review by Brian Lowry, CNN

The soap-opera relationships of musical royalty have inspired plenty of movies, including a 1981 made-for-TV version of Tammy Wynette‘s biography, appropriately titled “Stand By Your Man.” With a six-part format, “George & Tammy” brings a more expansive twang to the fractious lives of country legends Wynette and George Jones, in a solid if unspectacular showcase for crooning stars Jessica Chastain and Michael Shannon.

Viacom is giving this Showtime production an extra push by premiering it simultaneously on the pay channel and after its cable hit “Yellowstone,” a savvy maneuver in more ways than one. For starters, “George & Tammy” begins with the couple’s introduction while he’s grappling with alcoholism and she’s still married to Don Chapel (Pat Healy), which turns out to be by far the most interesting portion of a story that yields gradually diminishing returns thereafter.

Indeed, Tammy first meets George to discuss becoming his opening act while he’s both hung over and still in bed with an unidentified woman from the night before, offering a not-so-subtle tease of the challenges that lie ahead. When in a later episode she ruefully mutters, “Marriage don’t change nobody,” it brings that early moment screaming back to life, as does George’s sober confession, “I mess up everything good in my life.”

Adapted from the book by the couple’s daughter Georgette Jones by writer/producer Abe Sylvia (who worked with Chastain on “The Eyes of Tammy Faye”) and director John Hillcoat (“The Road”), “George & Tammy” begins in the late ’60s, with the boozing Jones slipping from his country pedestal and Wynette poised to vault to fame. In classic “A Star is Born” fashion, she gradually eclipses him, while his drinking and other excesses — shotguns and binge drinking turn out to be a combustible combination — put constant strain on her, perhaps best captured by his no-show at a concert that gives her rendition of “Stand By Your Man” a pointed meaning.

Chastain continues to carve out an inordinately unique niche of standout performances playing women named Tammy, although “Tammy Faye” embodied a different realm of high-profile personalities.

As noted, “George & Tammy” doesn’t sustain its early momentum, in part because there’s a predictability to the arc of these troubled relationships where the principals don’t know how to quit each other, personally or professionally, and being rich and famous turns out to be rough on relationships, despite all its benefits.

That is, of course, an oft-told tale, a la “Sid and Nancy” or Ike & Tina Turner in “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” among past dramatizations within different musical genres. Understandably, stars are invariably drawn to these kind of showy roles, with “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Rocketman” and “Elvis” among the recent examples.

Thanks to Chastain and Shannon (who admirably pull off their own singing), “George & Tammy” provides a warts-and-all window into Wynette and Jones’ lives. As for whether standing by them makes the argument for sitting through six chapters of a limited series, one’s passion for their music will likely tip the scales in deciding if it’s really worth that level of commitment.

“George & Tammy” premieres December 4 at 9 p.m. ET on Showtime and Paramount Network.

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