To understand why they called George Jones “the Possum,” you must see a picture of the real guy. More specifically, you must see the cover of his first hit record. “White Lightning,” written by doomed rockabilly singer J.P. Richardson, a.k.a. the Big Bopper, made George Jones famous in the spring of 1959. It was followed by a full-length album, George Jones Sings White Lighting and Other Favorites, shortly thereafter. (Richardson did not see the success of either, as he died in a plane crash alongside Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens on February 3, 1959.) The cover of George Jones Sings White Lighting and Other Favorites features a photo of Jones in profile, and, well … the combination of crew cut, upturned gaze, and strong brow does give him a certain marsupial quality.
It’s entirely different from the look of Michael Shannon’s downward-sloping profile, which is fine because his unique, lumbering physicality means Shannon is always playing himself to some extent, even when he’s cast as a historical figure. (See: his performance as Elvis in Elvis & Nixon.) He’s often cast as a heavy, so it’s interesting to see Shannon as a ladykiller, as he is in the premiere episode of the new Showtime miniseries George & Tammy. The intensity with which Shannon’s Jones pursues blushing young singer (and mother of three) Tammy Wynette (Jessica Chastain) gives their budding romance a dark edge. Now, I’m not entirely sure how much of this is intentional and how much is just Shannon being Shannon. But given the circumstances of their initial attraction, it fits. Jones was 11 years older than Wynette, and she was a longtime fan, so the power imbalance in their relationship was significant.
Jessica Chastain, meanwhile, has made something of a project of embodying the embodiment of down-home, all-American, white Christian conservative femininity: Last fall, she played another Tammy who stood by her man, disgraced televangelist and unlikely gay icon Tammy Faye Bakker, in The Eyes of Tammy Faye. Her portrayal of Tammy Wynette is less of a caricature, keeping the wide eyes and long-suffering attitude but getting rid of the spray tan and affected chirp. But that’s because Wynette’s public image was less cartoonish than Bakker’s — even if they did adopt the same hairdo in their older years.
Give or take a half-dozen layers of mascara, however, both Tammys represent a brand of working-class country feminism where a woman stands up for herself, but not too much, as an essential part of her role as moral gatekeeper and guardian of the home. We see this in the scene where Tammy gives George a wash and cut: She’s performing the feminine care work of tending to a man’s hygiene while simultaneously establishing that while she might bend, she won’t break: She playfully chides him, “You’re flirting with me, George Jones,” before bringing up her husband. She’s on to George’s game, as she further establishes with a dry bark of a laugh when he makes a snide comment about her husband in the recording studio. If the Possum wants to play, there will be rules, at least where Tammy Wynette is concerned.
For the most part, however, “The Race Is On” portrays Wynette’s marriage to her second husband, Don Chapel (Pat Healy), as something more straightforward and more common to music biopics: He is a needy parasite holding down a rising star out of jealousy. Tammy takes on all the household duties and makes all the family’s money without complaint. And Don resents her for it, even though she takes great care to coddle his ego. Why she would do all this and not toss this ungrateful man, whom she absolutely does not need, out on his broke ass is a complicated question, one I hope the show explores with more psychological depth later on. But whatever ideas Tammy has about a woman’s role and/or place in the world are not powerful enough to overcome her attraction to George Jones’s rough charm — and connections in the music industry.
The songs we see performed in full, or close to it, in the premiere episode of George & Tammy all telegraph what’s coming next with the subtlety of a six-shooter: “Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad,” a warning to Don and an invitation to George; “D-I-V-O-R-C-E,” whose implications are so clear that George comes over to the Chapel-Wynette household muttering its lyrics under his breath. The obviousness of the choices reflects the big reason I’m sticking to “cautiously optimistic” as my rating (so far) in the series: This is a rich text, from casting to costumes. (We haven’t even discussed Walton Goggins yet!) But the plot thus far is hitting the most expected music-biopic beats of the George Jones and Tammy Wynette saga. And once George and Tammy hit the road as a musical couple, the forecast calls for an increase in rock-and-roll (country here, but same difference in terms of bad behavior) cliché. We’ll see how George & Tammy handles the gathering storm.
• George & Tammy is based on a memoir by (spoiler alert, I guess) George Jones and Tammy Wynette’s daughter Georgette Jones, which makes the scene where her dad wakes up in bed with two naked women kind of awkward. Thus is the life of musical progeny, I suppose.
• The scene in which George shoots holes into the roof of his tour bus to “ventilate” it is a classic piece of George Jones myth-building. Jones claimed to have done this “often” in his 1996 autobiography, but corroborating accounts are scarce. There are many such apocryphal tales about Jones’s wild behavior, which I assume the series will continue to dramatize.
• The dinner-table scene at the end of this week’s episode is also based on fact: It is recounted both in Jones’s memoir and Jimmy McDonough’s biography of Wynette, albeit with a different excuse for George to come by for dinner.
• Wynette also accused Don of taking nude photos of her and showing them to her colleagues in her memoir, so don’t feel too sorry for him.
• This episode brought back some eldest-daughter trauma for me: I never sang backup for my stepmom, as Donna Chapel (Vivie Myrick) does on this week’s episode, but I know well the life of the unpaid default babysitter.
• Donna Chapel, Georgette Jones … the naming convention tells you a lot about these men’s view of women, especially daughters, as their own personal property.
• I am very excited about the fashion to come in this six-part miniseries: Between Tammy’s go-go boots and George’s Nudie jackets, we’ve already been treated to the colorful intersection of ’60s mod style and country peacocking.
• Shoutout to Tim Blake Nelson as singer-fiddler Roy Acuff, one of the Grand Ole Opry’s earliest stars. He’s got the perfect face to ease a viewer into the world of classic country music.
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