In the most devastating episode of Max’s late comedy The other TWOthe characters attend the premiere of a Broadway show titled 8 gay men with AIDS: a poem in many hours. Drew Tarver’s Cary wonders about future roles for his Method actor friend, who stars in the play, wondering, “Is there something coming up that’s prestigious and gay but isn’t carries non-stop trauma?”
The fact is that as a society we are not yet at a point where we can stop telling trauma stories. There remains a cultural need for stories that foreground the AIDS epidemic, that acknowledge the horrors of the Holocaust and slavery. That said, if you’re going to create a trauma-fueled, decades-spanning odyssey of gay life from McCarthy to Reagan, interweaving the Red Scare and the early days of AIDS, comparisons to Angels in America will be inevitable. And you won’t win.
It comes down to
Strong performances, familiar trauma-informed background.
Broadcast date: 9:00 PM Sunday October 29 (Showtime)
Form: Matthew Bomer, Jonathan Bailey, Allison Williams, Jelani Alladin, Noah J. Ricketts
Creator: Ron Nyswaner
Ron Nyswaner’s Showtime limited series Fellow travelers has the temporal range of Angels in America but none of the formal experimentation or operatic scope (which is a bit strange considering Thomas Mallon’s source novel was previously adapted as an opera). A love story, a rudimentary history lesson and, yes, a heavy dose of trauma porn, Fellow travelers is alternately vital and stodgy, with passionate, emotional elements – stars Matt Bomer, Jonathan Bailey and Allison Williams are consistently riveting for eight hours – at odds with the by-the-numbers storylines.
The series begins in 1986 with Bomer’s Hawkins Fuller, introduced as an aging family man, who learns that Bailey’s Tim Laughlin has been hospitalized in San Francisco. ‘Hawk’ is incarcerated, but lives a life of fundamental hollowness. Tim is gone, but dies.
In 1952, Hawk is a war hero, newcomer to the State Department and fixer for Senator Smith (Linus Roache, in a role that reduces the real Senator Lester Hunt to a pale fictionalization), a liberal politician who hopes Hawk will do the same . marrying his daughter Lucy (Williams). But Hawk, who has no ideology other than career advancement, is more interested in rough gay encounters in parks and restrooms.
Then Hawk meets Tim, a former seminary student and true anti-communist believer. Hawk helps Tim get a job with Senator Joseph McCarthy (Chris Bauer with a penile nose prosthesis) on a staff with Roy Cohn (Will Brill) and Cohn’s protege David Schine (Matt Visser).
As McCarthy and company make DC less and less safe for red people and gays, the outgoing Hawk and the sexually timid Tim – the series dances around their age difference – start a conversation that evolves from kinky and transient to kinky and romantic.
There’s also a storyline involving Hawk’s ex-Marcus (Jelani Alladin), an aspiring journalist who faces racism and homophobia and falls in love with nightclub performer Frankie (Noah J. Rickets). If that sounds like a side issue, it plays out that way. Someone rightly noted that the story needed this thread of intersectionality, but also refused to sacrifice the material from the McCarthy Hearings. The result is that Marcus and Frankie feel like narrative intrusions rather than fully realized characters.
The McCarthy subplot is completely disposable – and sucks too much oxygen from the first five episodes – but will be the thing that viewers who aren’t interested in the love story will gravitate towards. Brill, like Cohn, has a rodent-like energy, and Bauer enjoys playing dress-up. But the “They were all self-hating gays” angle is reductive – a weakness in the series.
The second half of the show jumps between backgrounds—protests in Vietnam, the aftermath of Harvey Milk’s assassination—but sets aside latex-encased reenactments and historical name-dropping for interpersonal relationships. It’s much stronger.
Showtime’s limited appetite for Showtime’s bland, rubbery recent historical chronicles – The loudest voice, The Comey Rule – stilt Fellow travelers would have been better off focusing entirely on Bomer and Bailey, both of whom are exceptional. While they never quite look convincing as the younger or older incarnations of their characters, they overcome the mediocre makeup.
Bailey’s turn is more volatile, his youthful exuberance gradually giving way to anguished flammability. In the more consistently externalized role, Bomer locates a hugely charismatic, self-destructive Don Draper streak in Hawk; Even when he realizes he can’t spend his life hurting the people who care about him most, Hawk can’t decide who he wants to hurt the least.
The sex scenes are plentiful and graphic. Nyswaner (Philadelphia) and the series’ directors, led by Daniel Minahan (Halston), tailor the pairings’ chemistry and choreography to match Tim and Hawk’s changing power dynamics. No matter how many times you think, “I’ve never seen THAT position on TV,” the frequent fucking never feels unnecessary.
The cracks in Hawk’s impeccable appearance play convincingly on Lucy’s staged domesticity. Williams has become one of our most underrated performers by specializing in characters whose unlikely ignorance is a defense mechanism, not a flaw. The show wants you to empathize with Lucy – the ‘other woman’ who has been caught in the middle of a love affair for centuries – but never feel sorry for her, and Williams has put this instantly recognizable humanity on the map. The thrill every time Lucy appraises her husband or her husband’s special friend is one of the best things in her life. Fellow travelers.
The series could have been exactly that: a chamber drama about three people bound together by uncomfortable and unsustainable love. No one should have to be saddled with synthetic crow’s feet or dull gray hair. Or look at a HUAC panel. Or get AIDS. No one should have to be traumatized beyond the inherent trauma of heartbreak. But of course, no one would make that series until the industry’s definition of “prestige” changes. This is what we get, and sometimes it’s effective enough.