"Stand By Your Man," tonight's two-hour biography of country singer Tammy Wynette on CBS (Channel 9 at 9), could just as easily have been titled "Gold Miner's Daughter." It seems to capitalize on the creative achievement and financial success of the Loretta Lynn film bio, "Coal Miner's Daughter." Unfortunately, television will be television, and the results are lackluster and somewhat misleading.
The story of Wynette Pugh and her rise from poverty to fame is no longer atypical in country music -- or in contemporary pop music, for that matter. What is different is that along the way, she married her childhood idol, country legend George Jones, with whom she had a tumultuous relationship. Since that's where the ratings are, "Stand By Your Man" accents the singer's love life to the exclusion of other significant matters.
For those who are unfamiliar with her 1979 autobiography, on which the show is loosely based, here are just two of the many things the show doesn't tell us about Wynette: Her father was a musician; and she studied music for five years as a child in Itawamba, Miss. In the movie, she's shown strumming a guitar (badly) and tending children, the implication being that she's a "natural." It's also boldly suggested that Wynette writes all her own songs; in fact, she's always been a producer's instrument, brilliantly tuned for other writers' songs. The many most responsible for making Wynette out of Pugh, producer Billy Sherrill, also wrote many of her biggest hits, including the show's title tune. Needless to say, Sherrill is barely visible on this program.
On the romantic side of the show, Wynette's first husband seems to have been borrowed from Hazzard County, but he disappears before long, to be replaced by Jones. You know it's coming when the very first scene shows Wynette singing along with the radio and telling her baby that "that's George Jones, the greatest country singer of them all."
Two commercials later, they're a duo, and at last the film is in familiar maudlin territory -- the star-struck young singer finally meeting up with her idol, getting to sing with him, marrying him, moving into a huge mansion. Except that it's all played out in television time, with television emphasis. Between one commercial break and the next, Wynette goes into a studio for the first time, tours the South, has three No. 1 hits, meets George, tours again, gets more famous and suddenly discovers that Jones has a monstrous drinking problem that's never even been hinted at. They get married anyway, which leads to the major dramatic thrust of "Stand By Your Man" -- e.g., how long will she? About two hours worth, oddly enough.
Annette O'Toole and Tim McIntire are barely credible as Wynette and Jones; neither brings to his role the authenticity or insistence with which Sissy Spacek imbued her Loretta Lynn characterization. O'Toole can't really sing either, though McIntire catches on to Jones' mannerisms pretty well. On the plus side, the editing (George Nicholson) and photography (Matthew Leonetti) are excellent, with Leonetti's soft focus and subdued colors catching the spirit of Southern life in the mid '60s.
Unfortunately, writer John Gay has concocted a tedious, simplistic spirit that mimics too many scenes from "Coal Miner's Daughter" without creating a distinct universe for his own subject. He never decides whether "Stand By Your Man" is about country music, poverty, drinking or dreams.In the end, it's about nothing so much as filling up air time with stories that are smaller than real life.