LGBTQ audiences will delight in Fellow Travelers on Showtime

Written by | Entertainment, Screen

Usually, a reviewer will watch one or two episodes of a new show via screeners to get a feel of the show and to write a review. All 8 screener episodes of Fellow Travelers were watched in only two sittings. The show, not without its nitpicky faults, is beautifully and affectionately crafted by the team behind and in front of the camera. The result is an intoxicating story that truly covers all stages and emotions of life that one could, and most often, go through. And though the story focuses on the LGBTQ community, it reaches beyond and is exhilarating to see our story told as a fully-fledged, high-budget endeavor that tells a story of family, friendship, loss, sex, joy, and at the heart of all the characters, love. Fellow Travelers is reminiscent of the mini-series that used to be produced for the major networks between the ‘70s and ‘80s, where high-drama and time-span storytelling were just the usual additives that didn’t quite reach soap opera level, but had some of those qualities that are addicting in its watching and make the viewer feel an intimate relationship with the characters. With modern acting styles and clear honesty regarding our community, the result is a kind of Queer as Folk meets The Thorn Birds (if you don’t know The Thorn Birds, watch it). This just may be Showtime’s chance to reclaim its presence during award season.

Based on the novel by Thomas Mallon, the show was created for television by Academy and Emmy Award nominee Ron Nyswaner. Nyswaner is no stranger to telling our stories, even during a time when LGBTQ stories weren’t meant for the mainstream. His first major hit was his screenplay for the 1993 Academy Award-winning movie Philadelphia, starring Tom Hanks as a man with AIDS suing his employers for firing him for his illness. As a voice for our community, he would go on to write Soldier’s Girl (also for Showtime) and My Policeman (starring Harry Styles). The show’s leads are Matt Bomer (who also executive-produces with Nyswaner) and Jonathan Bailey whose love (or is it love?) story spans decades.

In a Forrest Gump-reminiscent format, the story’s five main characters have an intimate interaction with the McCarthy era, the Vietnam War protests of the ’60s, the sex-driven and Harvey Milk era of the 70s, to the AIDS epidemic through the 80s. Bomer is the dashing, politically involved Hawkins Fuller who leads a double life where his homosexuality is limited to illicit bathroom interactions and one-night stands. In a chance encounter, he meets his complete opposite. Bailey plays nerdy, milk-drinking, confession-going Tim Laughlin who comes to work for Senator Joseph McCarthy and the infamous Roy Cohn during the Red Scare when Communists and homosexuals were outed with the ferocity and legitimacy of a witch hunt. What begins is a romance of sorts, with Hawkins playing the upper hand, being in total control of Tim in all ways – career, sex, and romance. Their story intertwines and affects all those around them – from the closeted LGBQ community of the time to the conservative upper-class politicians – no one in Hawkins and Tim’s circle is left untouched by their affair. As the story continues, the question remains – is Hawkins capable of love, and does that love bend toward Tim? Having seen the entire series, this review will leave that question open without opinion.

With our constant debate on gay playing gay, we see two gay actors, leading men in their own right, play the two titular characters. There is an undeniable chemistry and connection between these two that is so potent, so visceral, you instantly feel their energies – through the sex, through the romance, through the grief, through it all. Is that because they are two great actors (which they are)? Or is it because these are two gay men who have lived the reality of these lives? Whatever the cause may be (yes, I know it’s both), the result is exhilarating and tragically sad at the same time. Bailey’s acting is just exquisite here as his character pines for someone who may be unable to respond to that love. He is given the most to work with here as his character struggles through self-identity, his loneliness, and his relationship with God.

We see a full arc over the 8 episodes and he, without a doubt, should be a major contender for acting awards this year. Bomer’s character is a quandary. First presented as pretty much a predator, Hawkins continues to lead a life full of lies, continuously playing with Tim’s love to levels of tragedy. Hawkins, as first presented, is almost impossible to forgive from a viewer’s standpoint. As the story develops we see Hawkin’s façade start to crack and Bomer, as an actor, is given more to work with. The series does not shy away from the sex, regardless of what decade it happens to take place in. The sex scenes between Bomer and Bailey are, not being artfully described here, hot and graphic. Seeing 50s-era characters, and gay men at that, in graphic sex hasn’t really been seen and Fellow Travelers does not apologize for it, and thank goodness. The shock of the sexual activity and skin on display dissipates as it is clear that sex is a part of the foundation for this relationship. When you realize these two men, and other gay men in the closet, at that time, would probably only be able to encounter other gay men in such illicit ways, the sex does become a symbol of actual love, where domination in the bedroom reflects the power play these two lovers are dealing with in their outward lives and with each other.

Maybe because these two actors turn in such a tour de force, the rest of the ensemble is a bit uneven. While there are some other, really great performances here, some of the smaller bit parts and some of the co-stars have a delivery that rings false and too presentational, and pales in comparison to the artistry at work with the two leads. There are minor issues that every decade-spanning production has – some of the wigs, makeup, and costuming work better in some eras than in others and sometimes are a bit distracting. Wishing that Nyswaner had written the series in its entirety, some of the script seems to be forced and served with a helping of melodrama.

Showtime released the first episode on October 29th, with subsequent episodes coming out each week. These small cracks in the show could probably benefit from a full series release, where the viewer can binge and be totally immersed in the overall picture, not focusing episode by episode on each minute detail. Thankfully, the series assumes that viewers can keep up and doesn’t find the need to bombard us with date title cards. The viewer gets to put the pieces together, figuring out where the characters are in a certain part of time and how they got there. There is certainly a ride here where all bets are off, each decade comes with its surprises culminating in a bittersweet final scene. There is a deep melancholy in saying goodbye to these characters, and the show does a great job by not capitalizing on what could have been a very Hallmark movie-style ending.

Dealing with the decades that the show covers, it is required to include themes of coming out, family ostracization, LGBTQ activism, lives lost to the AIDS crisis, sex, and other themes that we have seen done heavy-handedly in previous LGBTQ content. This show is no different in that these issues are presented with a heavy hand, yet there is a sense of gentility and sincere pathos. There is joy here, and while our community is often the victim, victory still remains.

This show is extremely important for our younger audiences, and not just the LGBTQ audiences. With current political rights being stripped from minority groups, the horror that existed during the McCarthy era must not be forgotten. The McCarthy era was dealt with in such detail, that it is both a history lesson and a warning, especially when we look at the control our government still has over our community. Fellow Travelers also tells the stories of activists, normal people who decided to fight against the system, at all costs. Is this energy and capability in our younger generation? Do they know where we came from? And in the age of PreP and condomless sex, does our younger generation understand we were almost wiped out at the hands of the medical or political system? This series, set in history, is for today’s community. At the same time, it says two things: Look, how far we’ve come! How far have we really come? This show should be sparking conversation as both a beautifully done love story as well as a political horror story. In the end, as shown in this series, it really is about who we love, who we make our family, and what we do to make the world a better place.

Fellow Travelers is now streaming on Showtime.

Last modified: November 19, 2023