HomeEntertainmentReview | ‘Fellow Travelers’ delivers a steamy saga about bittersweet love

Review | ‘Fellow Travelers’ delivers a steamy saga about bittersweet love

“Fellow Travelers,” Showtime’s steamy, bittersweet series about two men in love, covers an extraordinary amount of historical ground — including the Lavender Scare, the Vietnam War and the AIDS crisis — with a deft hand and a light touch. Yes, there’s a lot of sex. (It wouldn’t be entirely misleading to call this the “gay ‘Outlander.’”) But Ron Nyswaner’s adaptation of Thomas Mallon’s 2007 novel is in other respects an intriguingly restrained project: Despite its scope and subject matter, the eight-episode series largely resists the impulse to moralize or devolve (as many a lesser show has) into an enraging but didactic history lesson. The show refuses to identify as a tragedy, though it easily could; the arc fits. And without billing itself as an anthropology of gay Americans in the ’50s (or, indeed, the ’60s through ’80s), the series efficiently sketches out the wide variety of ways a wide variety of queer people coped, copulated and compromised.

The emphasis, here, is on “compromised.” This is a show where people make ugly choices. “Fellow Travelers” remains more curious than judgmental about that, focusing more on how social worlds and certain temperaments intersect than on aligning its characters with present-day perspectives. Or, indeed, with their “fellows”: The title refers of course to the communism Sen. Joseph McCarthy was busily rooting out, but winks at his rumored homosexuality, too. While introducing the Lavender Scare, the show is admirably casual in its treatment of McCarthy’s alleged preferences and those of his chief counsel, Roy Cohn. There is no particular expectation (in ways that feel true for the period) that theory match practice.

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This isn’t, in that sense, a bossy show.

The same can’t be said for the limited series’s protagonist, Hawkins Fuller (Matt Bomer), an assertive gay man closeted by necessity while he works for the State Department in the 1950s (and who remains closeted long after it was strictly necessary). A charismatic careerist at the department, “Hawk,” who’s casual about assignations, unencumbered by guilt or shame and uninterested in relationships, fixates on Tim Laughlin (Jonathan Bailey) at a party celebrating Dwight D. Eisenhower’s election. Laughlin — whose beverage of choice is milk — is nervy and idealistic. His passions include Catholicism, rooting out the communist menace and, soon, Hawkins himself — after the latter gets him a job working for McCarthy, seduces him and makes him slink away in the middle of the night so they don’t get caught.

Laughlin, who suffers moral agonies trying to reconcile his sexuality with his faith, is the show’s center. His sincerity and ideological passion — which shifts over the course of life from anti-communism to progressive causes, making him an immensely sympathetic, confused and thoroughly recognizable type — anchor a relationship that is structurally unequal. Hawk’s dominance is rendered erotically as well as professionally through sexual positions, dirty talk, loaded condescension and underhanded asks. Brazenly unconflicted by moral considerations, he makes Laughlin report back to him on McCarthy’s activities and eventually marries the right woman for his career.

Cads aren’t new. And Bomer (to his credit) saves Hawk from coming across as beyond redemption, despite many pretty shocking betrayals. These are not, in the main, sexual. Though we frequently see Hawk with other partners, it isn’t a problem (as framed) that, in this love story, only one party finds sexual connection to be spiritual connection, too. The sex that Tim and Hawk have becomes notable, therefore, for how hot it is, how programmatically it changes to reflect their evolving relationship and for how poorly it captures what they mean to each other.

What most satisfies here is the unpredictable way these men’s stories develop across all that history. Tim increases in stridency and strength as Hawk’s understanding of himself as pragmatic and sharklike starts to crumble under the increasingly real pull of his “fake” attachments (to his wife, played with stoic reserve by Allison Williams; to his children; and to Tim).

This is rich stuff. Cads aren’t interesting, but the points at which their caddishness gets punctured can be, and Bomer renders Hawk’s louche confidence — and peculiar desire for respectability — as variously compelling, fragile and pathetic. Bailey, whom I last saw playing Anthony in the second season of “Bridgerton,” is sensational (and unrecognizable) here. He plays Tim with an irritable intelligence at odds with his submissiveness, governed by moral compulsions that sometimes become downright inquisitorial. As a perennial outsider, Tim becomes the lens through which we see various versions of queer community: their secrecy, their beautiful appeal, their utopian aspects and, sometimes, their monstrousness. It is a strange and surprising pleasure to watch this character evolve.

The show boasts a strong supporting cast, including Jelani Alladin as Marcus Hooks, a Black gay journalist struggling to serve both his communities, and Noah J. Ricketts as Frankie Hines, a drag queen who eventually becomes an activist. Their journey toward communal struggle — and protest, and action — takes place against the backdrop of Harvey Milk’s assassination.

The series’s greatest achievement is its commitment to its characters as characters — dwelling gently on their peculiarities and inconsistencies and never letting them become allegories for larger struggles. I want to be clear: “Fellow Travelers” is extremely interested in the politics of the periods it covers. Fascinating details emerge during the Lavender Scare period of the show, for example, when the government was rooting out employees suspected of homosexuality. Several characters get the works: lie detectors, searches, interrogations and peculiar tests including one where subjects were asked to read passages from “Of Human Bondage.”

But the show’s loyalties are clear. It takes Tim a much longer time than it should to disavow Joseph McCarthy. Doesn’t matter. Even when they’re wrong — and this feels correct, because that’s what so much of love is, right? — the series sticks to Tim and Hawk.

Fellow Travelers premieres on Paramount Plus with Showtime Oct. 27, with subsequent episodes airing weekly. It will debut on Showtime Oct. 29.

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