Showtime has been delivering solid hits since the early 2000s. From popular modern television masterpieces like Mad Men and Yellowjackets to underrated gems like The Big C and gone-too-soon comedies like United States of Tara, Showtime’s programming has something for everyone. This November, its strongest bet is the historical romance Fellow Travelers, from the mind of Homeland‘s Ron Nyswaner.
Based on the 2007 novel by Thomas Mallon, the show begins in 1950s Washington at the height of McCarthyism. The main plot revolves around the romance between two men, war hero and Washington star Hawkins Fuller and young and idealistic Catholic boy Tim Laughlin. The plot spans decades, chronicling their volatile romance throughout the McCarthy-centric ’50s, the radical ’60s, the hedonistic ’70s, and ultimately, the challenging ’80s. Although the plot remains anchored by Hawk and Tim’s romance, Fellow Travelers features many supporting characters, aiming to present a full and rich portrayal of the LGBTQ+ experience during some of its most pivotal years.
Equal parts political thriller and sweeping romantic epic, Fellow Travelers is the month’s most exciting show. And while it might seem a niche effort aimed at a very specific audience, the show is a thoughtful and insightful examination of love amid outside turmoil. Those looking for their new TV obsession this November can’t find a better show than Fellow Travelers, and I’m about to tell you exactly why.
Fellow Travelers‘ political story is stirring and engaging. Although Bailey and Bomer are the show’s stars, the supporting cast, especially during the McCarthy-centric episodes, is equally impressive. Particular attention must be given to the brilliant Will Brill, who plays the infamous Roy Cohn with enough depth to make him fascinating without excusing his actions.
McCarthyism is among the most notorious periods in United States history. While most films depict the consequences of the witch hunt, Fellow Travelers offers a look at those who chose to manipulate the system in their favor rather than fighting a losing fight. The show shines a light on what it was like for queer people living under McCarthy’s scrutiny and the lengths they’d go to protect their lives and careers from the demagogue’s nefarious investigations.
It’s not always a pleasant watch. Fellow Travelers isn’t afraid to have its characters get their hands dirty, resulting in a peculiar collection of anti-heroes with unclear consciences and more than a few skeletons in their closet. Yet, that was the reality of many living during this infamous period, and the show is richer and more interesting because of it. Bomer, in particular, goes all in on Hawk’s the-end-justifies-the-means persona, while watching Bailey’s Tim struggle with his morals and faith is among the series’ most captivating plots.
One of Fellow Travelers‘ main selling points is its frank and, it must be said, horny depiction of gay romance. Anchored by the stellar and steamy duo of Bomer and Bailey, the show boldly portrays Hawk and Tim’s relationship without prejudice or restraint. Bomer and Bailey go all-in on the show’s many sex scenes, effectively conveying the characters’ desire without forgetting the emotion.
In an age where sexual content is becoming increasingly sanitized and monitored, and every sex scene needs to be justified as “necessary” to “advance the plot,” it’s refreshing to see a show as unabashedly sex-positive as Fellow Travelers. The sex scenes are unafraid and natural, never feeling the need to justify themselves. Instead, Hawk and Tim’s sexuality is allowed to simply exist, resulting in a more earnest and genuine depiction of queerness than many shows grant their gay characters.
Sex in shows is not rare – Bailey’s own series, the groundbreaking period romance Bridgerton, introduces some much-needed steam to what often seems like an overly pristine genre. However, few shows strike such an effortless balance between intimacy and storytelling. Fellow Travelers is an excellent marriage between the characters’ political journey and their sexual activities, much like any real person’s life. And while it’s great to see two perfect specimens like Bomer and Bailey getting it on, everything happening outside the bedroom is just as compelling.
Fellow Travelers is very much a two-hander, but it has several supporting characters that beautifully complement Tim and Hawk’s story. Jelani Alladin is a revelation as Marcus, a Black man fighting multiple battles simultaneously. His romance with Noah J. Ricketts’ Frankie doesn’t receive as much attention as Tim and Hawk’s, and it’s a shame. Theirs is a powerful story, and Fellow Travelers could’ve benefitted greatly from placing it in the spotlight.
The ever-reliable Allison Williams is in a similar position. At first sight, her role as Lucy Smith fits the bill for the long-suffering wife of a closeted gay man. Yet, Williams does so much with the character, becoming integral to the plot in a way I’m not sure any other actress could’ve achieved. Williams’ work, particularly opposite Bailey in the later episodes, is a true testament to her ability to pull focus.
The McCarthy portion of the story is also full of scene-stealers, from the aforementioned Brill to Chris Bauer as a truly detestable version of McCarthy. Erin Neufer and Christine Horne are also impressive, to the point where the show suffers from their absence once it moves away from DC in later episodes.
It’s understandable and logical that Fellow Travelers would remain firmly focused on Hawk and Tim. However, its collection of supporting characters is too compelling, and once they fade into the background, we can’t help but miss them. A fuller depiction of these figures’ lives might’ve resulted in a richer and even stronger narrative, especially considering the show’s main thesis centers on the enduring repercussions of discrimination throughout the years, even as society supposedly evolves past its previous prejudices.
Despite this minor flaw, Fellow Travelers remains an absolute must-watch. In a just world, it would be the hit of the season, much like The White Lotus season 2 was last year. It has everything necessary to become your new addiction: talented and handsome leads, an exciting and gripping romantic angle, and a thought-provoking story about acceptance and the prize of secrecy. Similarly, the show should be embraced by critics, if only for Bomer and Bailey’s performances; the fact they have both been snubbed by major awards’ bodies for worthy performances makes recognizing them for this even more pressing.
At the end of the day, Fellow Travelers should succeed for one simple reason: it’s damn good television. All it needs is an audience, and those watching the first episode will be hooked. Unlike the best shows on Netflix or other streamers, Fellow Travelers is not a binge; it benefits from a weekly release schedule, allowing audiences to process each eventful episode. It’s a beautiful, sweeping, and often frustrating yet undeniably rewarding story, the kind that television rarely does but absolutely should.
Fellow Travelers will air through November and into early December on Showtime and Paramount+.
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