“Did you know that Roy Cohn had a collection of frogs in his apartment?”
The simplicity with which this random fact about one of the perpetrators of the Red Scare in the 1950s rolls off Robbie Rogers’ tongue surprises even him. Seconds later, he’s moved onto an obscure note about the boisterous ascension of Joseph McCarthy, the Wisconsin senator who led the unrelenting anti-communist expulsion of government employees during the Cold War.
“It’s all the little details that you become obsessed with when you read about these men,” Rogers says.
Rogers isn’t just brushing up on his Cold War-era American history for the hell of it. He has spent more than two years mainlining books and biographies about the key players in McCarthy-era America to serve as an executive producer on Showtime’s Fellow Travelers, a love story between two men at one of the most perilous times in history to be any shade of queer. The series is based on the book by Thomas Mallon, a copy of which series writer Ron Nyswaner handed Rogers in 2021 during production on their last venture, the Harry Styles-led film My Policeman.
While McCarthy and Cohn were the faces of the anti-communist push in the halls of government, Rogers said the book was most persuasive in its depiction of the human cost of the Lavender Scare, the movement led by McCarthy and company to expose homosexuals working in the government because of the prejudiced belief that they were amoral and more vulnerable to communist extortion in order to conceal their sexuality. The story follows Hawkins (Matt Bomer), a Democratic staffer who long ago decided to satisfy his needs with covert lust over compromising love. That is until he meets Tim (Jonathan Bailey), a religiously devout political ladder climber who finds an idol in McCarthy’s anti-communist rhetoric despite being gay himself. As the two tumble into an all-encompassing love, they find their values and limits tested by the expectations and dangers of the society around them.
“It was always the love story for me,” Rogers says. “It is a love story that is set in a time when the stakes were just so high. There is such an important history there.”
The series is a major leap for Rogers, who, himself, is a historical figure having become the first openly gay man to play in a major North American professional sports league when he joined the LA Galaxy soccer team in 2013. Since then, he’s pivoted to producing with a few crucial credits to his name, including the All-American franchise on The CW, one of the few things to survive the network’s sale to Nexstar.
He also produced the aforementioned My Policeman, another historical title that explores a gay affair in 1950s Britain, when homosexuality was a crime. Rogers says that experience was a compelling history lesson. But when he returned to American soil, he found an even more close-to-home subject to study.
“Obviously, gay history isn’t taught much in schools, but even some of the Red Scare history is not something I remember learning about,” he says. “Maybe I was just so focused on soccer and not paying attention. But I don’t think I got a good understanding of the Red Scare and certainly not the Lavender Scare. So really, I’m just back in school.”
This new education helped him work with the series’s creative team to strike a delicate balance as they built on the groundwork laid by Mallon’s book. While Rogers found McCarthy and secretly gay Cohn morbidly fascinating as reviled political figures, the depiction of their atrocities was never meant to overshadow the struggle of Hawk, Tim, and all those they left to live in fear of persecution or worse.
“As you really dive deep into McCarthy and Cohn, you don’t want to get too far away from the love story,” he says. “Really, when you are in the bedroom or the restaurant with Hawk and Tim, that’s where you want to stay. That’s the story we wanted to tell.”
As Fellow Travelers has rolled out on Paramount+ and Showtime, the series has found acclaim on many fronts, including its frank and unyielding depiction of gay sex. Rogers says he has been surprised by the fixation on the show’s sex scenes because they weren’t the biggest topic of conversation in the writers room and never once, he says, was the question ever posed of how far they could push the envelope.
“It was all from character and story and power,” he says. “It was about the power Hawk has over people, how he uses sex, the dynamic between him and Tim, and how that can change between them. What we talked about was how sex is an extension of the power dynamics at play in Washington, D.C.”
As Hawk and Tim succumb to their feelings for one another, the wall they put up for the world begins to fall, and their desires, compulsions and, even, kinks are laid bare. Rogers says he thinks that is what people are responding to — the unencumbered passion that breaks through when someone is allowed to be who they are.
“I think — or really, I know — that when you are a gay man or woman, and you have been hiding yourself from your family, your colleagues, your friends; when you get those intimate moments with someone you are falling in love with or intimately attracted to, you don’t know what emotions are going to come out,” he says. “It can be aggressive, it can be passionate, it can be kinky, it can be so many different things. And it’s very heavy because you are so reserved and guarded the rest of the time. Hiding, hiding, hiding and then there is this explosion, which can be very transcendent for someone like Tim.”
Depicting that freedom in the bedroom and in the quieter moments after the explosion of passion — which Rogers says are his favorites in the series — help define the stakes of just how dangerous it was for queer people outside of those safe spaces. Even beyond Hawk and Tim, the series follows the burgeoning and even more perilous love between Marcus (Jelani Alladin), a Black journalist, and Frankie (Noah Ricketts), a drag performer at a local gay-friendly club. Faced with even greater prejudice, their story is a reminder that the threat of the Lavender Scare was not limited to just one label.
Dressing this tragically ever-relevant history up in something digestible and attractive to audiences is how a moment in time like the Lavender Scare gets its due through Fellow Travelers. As Rogers finally puts the McCarthy and Cohn books away, that will be the challenge that awaits whatever historical moment grabs his attention next.
“When you are selling something, you have to disguise it in other things,” he says. “Everyone likes a love story, and that’s perfect because it has to be something else before it can be a history lesson.”
New episodes of Fellow Travelers stream Fridays on Paramount+, and air Sundays at 9:00 PM ET on Showtime. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.
Hunter Ingram is a TV writer living in North Carolina and watching way too much television. His byline has appeared in Variety, Emmy Magazine, USA Today, and across Gannett's USA Today Network newspapers.