“Fellow Travelers” is a difficult lesson in gay history
This romantic miniseries covers a variety of topics, from a love story to social inequality and the complexities of human nature in difficult times.
In a shocking spectacle (and subsequent TV miniseries) Angels in America (Angels in America) two men with opposing political ideologies fall into dangerous love, all while the specter of Roy Cohn looms over them. Older issues also appear in this play, set amid the terrible clash between Reagan and the AIDS epidemic – the Bolshevik Revolution, pogroms and government purges of McCarthyism in the 1950s. New miniseries Fellow Travelers (SkyShowtime) brings this latter era to the forefront as two men begin an affair while coming dangerously close to Roy Cohn’s sinister plans.
The series is based on a novel by Thomas Mallon that spans decades but mainly focuses on the horrific persecution of Joseph McCarthy. Hawkins Fuller (Matt Bomer) is a suave, handsome Washington war hero, a distinguished bachelor who prefers to spend his private time having rough sex (he’s always the dominant one) with men he meets in gay bars and other places where you can have a good time . He’s quite good at leading a secret life, although of course there’s always a certain amount of recklessness involved.
Hawk is a good enough mentor to Tim Laughlin (Jonathan Bailey), a staunch Catholic from the Midwest who wholeheartedly supports anti-communist efforts and, with Hawk’s help, goes to work for McCarthy. As their professional positions become increasingly compromised, the two men begin a passionate love affair of push and pull.
Hawk is a pragmatic, emotionally distant opponent of Tim’s sincere longing. Even though we watch Hawk and Tim move from furtive carnality towards something like a real relationship, the series’ multi-axial plot tells us early on that this relationship won’t last. 1980s – Hawk is in a long marriage to a senator’s daughter, and Tim dies of AIDS in San Francisco.
Fellow Travelers is a sad, star-studded love story about people torn apart by political and personal forces, by shame, fear and stubbornness. As the series progresses, the intriguing Washington thriller elements of the early episodes – secretly passed notes, betrayals committed in ruthless self-defense – give way to a more familiar, suspenseful melodrama. Creator Ron Nyswaner expands the scope of the story beyond what’s found in the novel, delving into the entire history of gay strife as the movement moves forward into the 1990s and 2000s amid the bitter devastation of the plague.
While these themes have merit, the show is something of a Graham Greene gay story. If Fellow Travelers it didn’t feel the need to wring tears from the viewer, the characters could have retained greater detail and more intricate depth. Instead, the series gradually flattens these men into stereotypes: Hawk is a tragic old man who only accepts himself when it is too late, Tim – a younger idealist who becomes a martyr for the cause. We begin to bitterly miss the cold, wise beginning of the series, the atmospheric atmosphere of mid-century tension and discretion.
What is constant is sex, which Fellow Travelers presents in explicit abundancei. There is a clear power dynamic in many scenes of Hawk and Tim in the heat of passion – which should be more palpable in scenes where they are clothed. Other lovers appear on the scene, most notably during an adventurous trip to Fire Island in the 1970s, but Hawk and Tim are at the center of the show’s depiction of gay sexuality. (Which has to do with the perhaps anachronistic amount of pecs and abdominal muscles). They could not be missing, of course, but these scenes also remain strangely at odds with the more pulpy and bland aspects of the show, which clearly wants to confront the viewer with something real and emotional, but then abruptly falls back into broad sentimentality and didactic conclusion-drawing.
It’s an unbalanced series that tries to do too much at once. The series tries to diversify by introducing a subplot involving ambitious black reporter Marcus (Jelani Alladin) struggling with racism in Washington and his own femmephobia when he falls in love with drag queen Frankie (Noah J. Ricketts). Similarly, Hawk’s wife, Lucy (Allison Williams), is the focus of the series’ finale, but it feels like too little, too late – if she was going to play a major role in the story, her perspective should have been introduced earlier.
All the actors involved do their best to highlight what is not in the script. Particularly striking is Bomer, who uses his charm to both seduce and repel. He is deftly convincing as a mercurial political activist, even when he has to deliver clunky lines like, “Looks like I finally have a date with Mr. Right. Or maybe I should say Mr. Right Wing.”
Bailey is tasked with mapping Tim’s transformation from a conscientious conservative into a left-wing radical, forever struggling with his compromised faith. The writers have made Tim too nice, too dim, too undoubtedly good to be a terribly interesting character, but Bailey at least sells the sweetness of first love and the pain of its end. (Which happens many times when Fellow Travelers are shown in different timelines.)
The acting is respectable, the aesthetic is elegant and confident. Fellow Travelers has the makings of a brilliant, satisfying series that combines intellectual sophistication with the swoon and heartbreak of a romantic epic. But the series is also intended to become a cursory civics lesson, filled with trite phrases in which the characters make formulaic statements about the state of injustice. The drug dance scene cuts to slow motion as revelers learn that Harvey Milk’s killer, Dan White, was only convicted of manslaughter. AIDS also appears in the series. There are references to Vietnam and the assassination of Martin Luther King.
It’s all starting to feel like a rehash of the well-intentioned but bogus ABC miniseries “When We Rise,” something that might be shown in piecemeal to a high school class learning about gay rights. That’s not where you start Fellow Travelers. So it’s a shame to see the series get lost when it’s eagerly building its world. If only these people – disappointed, born at the wrong time – were simply allowed to belong to history, instead of being forced to live awkwardly with the forces that create it.
The series can be watched on SkyShowtime from Sunday, November 19, 2023. Further episodes will be added weekly on Sunday.
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source: Vanity Fair
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