In the Showtime mini-series “George & Tammy,” Michael Shannon does the country music legend George Jones the honor of underplaying him. Jones, defined as much by his epic drinking and erratic behavior as by his hit songs, invites scenery chewing and caricature. But Shannon homes in on Jones’s vulnerability and lacerating, self-deprecating humor and gives a terrific performance from start to finish.
Right with him, if not quite as absorbing, is Jessica Chastain as Tammy Wynette, another country legend and Jones’s partner in a rocky six-year marriage and a much longer musical collaboration. Chastain doesn’t always open up onscreen — to my eye, her success has been largely based on a cautious, make-no-mistakes approach — but she’s warm and convincing as Wynette.
Together, Shannon and Chastain make the six episodes of “George & Tammy,” which premieres online on Friday and on cable on Sunday, easy to watch; they give it the piquancy and the professionalism of one of Jones and Wynette’s chart-topping duets. (They had eight top 10 country hits together and three No. 1’s, including “We’re Gonna Hold On” and “Golden Ring.”) They’re a good match, and they convey the couple’s absorption in each other, musically and sexually. When Wynette and Jones are together, no one else matters, and the series’s best scenes show them flirting or singing together, which amount to the same thing.
And Chastain and Shannon pass the test when it comes to the songs. Neither sounds much like their models — Chastain’s relatively small, tight singing voice is especially far off from Wynette’s — but they’re more than adequate. That’s crucial, because the series is structured around the songs, which in some cases were originally written to synthesize the myth and the reality of Jones and Wynette’s turbulent relationship. Shannon and Chastain’s heartfelt renditions are the show’s connective tissue.
They’re so good together, and the material is so rich, that “George & Tammy” should, by all rights, be a great love story. Unfortunately, no one wrote one for them.
Created by Abe Sylvia (“The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” “Nurse Jackie”) based on a book by Jones and Wynette’s daughter, Georgette Jones, “George & Tammy” never takes on a coherent shape. It’s a greatest-hits album of Jones and Wynette anecdotes, some presented with style and some perfunctory or maudlin, strung together between songs.
The colorful ones involve Jones, which tilts the show toward him: George turning over the Thanksgiving table, George riding a lawnmower to the bar after Tammy takes away the car keys, George taking a potshot at his guitar player and good friend Peanutt Montgomery.
Tammy, meanwhile, mostly suffers and forbears, and that’s where the show, as if taking its cue from the duo’s unapologetically melodramatic ballads, digs in. That imbalance in the script has a lot to do with Chastain’s performance not registering as strongly as Shannon’s. Wynette is, in part, portrayed as a secular saint — one character says he doesn’t want to be in a world without her, and when he leaves his wife for her, the wife declares, “I can’t stop loving Tammy Wynette” — and it does Chastain no favors.
While Jones indulges his dark side, Wynette steadfastly cares for her children and perseveres in her career, until she succumbs to the painkiller addiction — portrayed as a result of mistreatment by a patriarchal medical system — that cut short her life. In the later episodes Chastain spends much of her screen time popping pills and receiving injections.
The overly literal, shapeless nature of the storytelling takes its toll in the latter half of the series, which flattens out into a long, slow march to a foregone conclusion. Jones’s late-career resurgence is hinted at but doesn’t figure into the show’s tidy “A Star Is Born” moral arc. Other interesting facets of the singers’ real-life story, like Jones’s fight for traditional musical styles and the feminist backlash against Wynette’s stand-by-your-man anthems, receive the briefest nods.
Chastain and Shannon, working with the director John Hillcoat, never falter, though. They’re good when things are going bad, and they’re better when things are going well, in the playful moments. Shannon is hilarious when the always inappropriate Jones softly sings the chorus of Wynette’s hit “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” — in front of her children and husband — to let her know that his own divorce has come through. And the two are touching in a scene in which their flirtation deepens while Wynette, a former hairdresser, washes Jones’s unruly hair (a repeated baptismal motif).
“George & Tammy” has a smaller cast than most high-profile historical-biographical dramas; of the supporting players, the two who stand out are David Wilson Barnes, as the beneficently ruthless producer Billy Sherrill, and Pat Healy, who is particularly good as Don Chapel, the talented but weak and chauvinistic husband Wynette leaves for Jones.
Other talented performers are stranded by the script. Steve Zahn is stuck portraying the designated villain, George Richey, Wynette’s last husband, and he’s given nothing to play but greed and smarminess, while Walton Goggins makes little impression as Montgomery, who’s a cipher. (The real Earl “Peanutt” Montgomery gets a better scene than any given to Goggins, a few atmospheric seconds as a street musician who draws Jones’s attention.)
Whenever Chastain or Shannon is onscreen, however, the series is likely to hold your attention, even when nothing particularly interesting is going on. The country songs that they sing tend to be beautifully constructed, self-contained dramas; the writers of “George & Tammy” could have studied them more closely.