The gay characters at the center of Fellow Travelers spend the bulk of the series navigating the halls of government during the Red Scare of the 1950s, when Senator Joseph McCarthy led a witch hunt in search of suspected Communists, leftist sympathizers, and those whose private lives, McCarthy argued, left them open to coercion and blackmail from the enemy. It was that latter notion — that closeted queer people working in government would make for easy pickings by Soviet spies and were thus security risks — that led to what's become known as the "Lavender Scare." Hundreds of queer people lost jobs during the Lavender Scare, and it helped galvanize the idea that gay men and women were threats to the American way of life.
Fellow Travelers, a new eight-part limited series on Showtime developed by Philadelphia screenwriter Ron Nyswaner, tracks the internalized shame that comes with treating people like threats and embarrassments for being who they are, but in its best moments, it doesn't wallow in that shame. While the decades-spanning love story of government aides Hawkins Fuller (Matt Bomer) and Tim Laughlin (Jonathan Bailey) often plays like predictable melodrama, the show springs to life, in more ways than one, during the plentiful sex scenes, where Hawk and Tim (or "Skippy," as Hawk calls him, which is both intentionally diminutive and hot) play out a far more complex relationship dynamic than is ever present in daylight hours.
We've been conditioned to view sex scenes in film as gratuitous, prurient, and aiming for a lowest common denominator of viewer. HBO's mandates for sex scenes in its prestige shows, the infamous "sexposition" scenes on Game of Thrones, the campy smut of the Ryan Murphy universe, we tend to think of it as cheap titillation. It's prestige TV creators throwing a bone (no pun intended) to the masses to satisfy their base desires before they get to the business of real, respectable storytelling. Often this is true! But it makes it harder to appreciate a show like Fellow Travelers, a hit-or-miss drama that becomes riveting and somewhat revolutionary when the clothes come off, without feeling a little embarrassed.
Nyswaner and director Daniel Minahan certainly don't waste much time getting to the good stuff (nor has Showtime, considering the network released a smutty bit of foreplay between Bomer and Bailey's characters as a teaser clip). Fuller and Laughlin cross paths as a pair of Senate aides working behind the scenes during the McCarthy hearings. Laughlin, meek and devoutly religious, is newly working for McCarthy, while Fuller is already a ruthless operator working as the right hand of a fictionalized senator from Unspecified State, played by Linus Roache. Fuller initially sees Laughlin as a pawn he can maneuver in order to get dirt on McCarthy, but he also sees something else in Laughlin's sensitive, searching demeanor. Their attraction is immediately apparent, and by the end of the first episode, they get to doing what any two absurdly gorgeous gay men who are hot for each other would do.
The sex scenes in Fellow Travelers, beyond simply being hot, end up revealing character in a far more expedient way than at any other point in the show. Hawk is dominant and unyielding, relishing in taking ownership of Skippy, who surrenders himself as completely as he does to the religion he's so devoted to. As the series goes on, Hawk and Skippy's relationship evolves through these sex scenes, with power dynamics shifting, trust and affection evolving, and Bomer and Bailey acting their (bare) asses off. But these scenes are also just… hot. They're aggressive, carnal, kinky (low-grade kink, but still), and the camera doesn't back away from much. And for as much as character development and story themes are developed in these scenes, there's something revolutionary about letting sex scenes just be all-out horny in a show about gay men in love. Too often, gay sex among the closeted characters of mid-century dramas is fraught and surreptitious, in keeping with the prevalent shame of the era. Fellow Travelers takes care to remember that, with all of society's pressures to not indulge in gay sex in the 1950s, it would take a pretty strong carnal attraction for someone to transgress.
Unfortunately, nothing else in Fellow Travelers feels as sharp or daring as those sex scenes. Fellow Travelers could have been a queer version of The Americans, full of intrigue and manipulation and double-crosses within the halls of power in a historical fiction. But Nyswaner, adapting from the novel by Thomas Mallon, can't quite get a handle on the story he wants to tell here. The McCarthy hearings take up the first five episodes of the series, unbalancing the season and taking up too much space in the narrative to have it wrapped up by mid-season. Chris Bauer makes for a ghoulish McCarthy under some heavy stage makeup, but Will Brill (The OA) delivers a serpentine Roy Cohn, backing away from the temptation to go too big (Al Pacino cornered that market in Angels in America just fine) and instead playing the notoriously closeted conservative mastermind as someone whose queerness had curdled inside him.
The last few episodes of the series race through the decades en route to the late 1980s. There's a lot of history, queer and otherwise, along that road, but the stops to commemorate the anti-Vietnam War movement and the death of Harvey Milk are unavoidably rushed. There's also the fact that the series is laced throughout with flash-forwards to 1980s San Francisco, where the specter of the AIDS crisis looms. It's right and historically accurate to attach the ravages of AIDS to any queer love story that approaches the 1980s, but there's a fatalism to it that can't help but feel crushing. Perhaps that's only correct.
Fellow Travelers does have its moments in these interludes. Laughlin has an encounter with Hawk's son, years down the line, that is delicate and unexpected. There's also a trip to Fire Island that seems for a moment like it's going to indulge in every bad cliche about bitchy queens but instead has some real insight about queer community. (There's also an incredible sex scene that advances the plot while being wildly explicit, tell your friends.)
And yet for all the good the show does, there are missed opportunities. Alison Williams seemed like such perfect casting as Hawk's simmering wife, but she ends up stuck on a hamster wheel of thankless scenes we've seen a billion times before. In Brokeback Mountain terms, she's both Anne Hathaway’s character (the wigs) and Michelle Williams’ (a scene where she realizes something while standing at a sink). There's also the character of Marcus (Jelani Alladin), a Black queer reporter whose story threads through that of Hawk and Skippy's, though not seamlessly enough to keep from seeming like an afterthought. Alladin gives an incredible performance of conflicted anger, as does Noah J. Ricketts as his longtime partner, but too often their story is on an island, begging for a fuller, more focused treatment.
Perhaps the biggest sin in Fellow Travelers is that it tells a story like the Lavender Scare that is screaming for a thrilling, angry, taut interpretation and then dilutes it with a more conventional tale of queer love across the ravaging decades of the latter 20th century. The show can reach must-see levels of hot, but all too often it settles for room temperature.
Fellow Travelers premieres October 29 at 9:00 PM ET on Showtime. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.
Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.