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“Fellow Travelers” reviewed

The new Showtime mini-series Fellow Travelers, based on the novel by Thomas Mallon, which spans decades but mostly stays zoomed in on the scary persecutions of Joseph McCarthy. Hawkins Fuller (Matt Bomer) is a suave, handsome, war-hero Washington wheel-greaser, an eligible bachelor who prefers to spend his private time having rough sex (he’s always the dom) with men he meets at gay speakeasies and other cruising spots. He’s quite good at living a secret life, though of course a certain amount of recklessness is always in play.

Hawk is a good enough mentor to wide-eyed Tim Laughlin (Jonathan Bailey), a devoutly Catholic rube from the Midwest who wholeheartedly supports anti-Communist efforts and, through Hawk’s help, finds himself working for McCarthy. As their career positions grow ever more compromised, the two men begin a lusty, push-and-pull affair; Hawk is the pragmatic, emotionally distant foil to Tim’s earnest longing. Though we watch as Hawk and Tim move from the furtively carnal toward something like a genuine relationship, the show’s multiple-timeline device tells us pretty early on that this relationship does not endure. In the 1980s, Hawk is in a long marriage to a senator’s daughter while Tim is dying of AIDS in San Francisco.

Fellow Travelers is a weepy, a star-crossed love story about people torn asunder by forces political and personal, by shame and fear and stubbornness. As the series unfolds, the intriguing Washingtonian-thriller trappings of early episodes—notes covertly passed, betrayals done out of ruthless self-preservation—give way to more familiar, plodding melodrama. Creator Ron Nyswaner expands the scope of the story beyond that of the novel, reaching to incorporate a whole history of gay struggle as the movement lurches its way to the progresses of the 1990s and 2000s, amidst the bitter devastation of a plague.

Worthy as those topics are, they feel tacked onto what might otherwise be a shrewd, sad story of head and heart at war during a charged American moment, a sort of gay Graham Greene tale. Had Fellow Travelers not felt the urge to coax the easiest won tears out of its audience, its characters might have maintained more specificity, more intricate depth. Instead the series gradually flattens these men into clichés: Hawk is the tragic old-schooler who only accepts himself when it is too late, Tim the younger idealist who becomes a martyr to the cause. We come to bitterly miss the cold savvy of the series’s beginning, the moody mid-century air of suspense and high-wire discretion.

What is constant throughout is the sex, which Fellow Travelers presents in blunt abundance. A clear power dynamic is established in the many scenes of Hawk and Tim in the heat of passion—one that should be more palpable in the scenes in which they’re clothed. Other lovers enter the picture, particularly during a fraught expedition to 1970s Fire Island, but Hawk and Tim are at the white hot center of the show’s depiction of gay male sexuality. (Which involves a perhaps anachronistic amount of pecs and abs.) It’s appreciated that the show goes there, but these scenes also act in strange discord with the mushier, blander aspects of the series. The show clearly wants to confront the audience with something real and visceral, but then it swings wildly back to broad sentimentalism and didactic point-making.

It’s an imbalanced series, one trying to do too much at once. The show attempts to diversify its purview by introducing a side plot involving an ambitious Black reporter, Marcus (Jelani Alladin), contending with D.C. racism and some of his own femme-phobia as he falls for a drag performer, Frankie (Noah J. Ricketts). That’s an interesting story to tell, but can only get so much attention when Hawk and Tim are occupying most of the narrative space. Similarly, Hawk’s wife, Lucy (Allison Williams), is given focus toward the end of the series, but that feels like too little too late—if she was going to be a major player in the story, her perspective needed to be introduced sooner.

All the actors involved do their best to flesh out what the writing doesn’t. Bomer is particularly striking, using his matinee-idol looks to both seduce and repulse. He’s slickly convincing as a shifty political operator, even when he has to say clunky lines like, “Looks like I finally have a date with Mr. Right. Or should I say, Mr. Right Wing.” Bailey is tasked with mapping Tim’s shift from dutiful conservative to lefty radical, forever contending with his compromised faith.

The writing renders Tim too nice, too besotten, too unquestionably good to be a terribly interesting character, but Bailey at least sells the sweetness of first love and the hurt of its ending.  Fellow Travelers has the makings of a sharp, rewarding series, one that blends intellectual sophistication with the swoon and heartbreak of a romantic epic. But the show is determined to become a cursory civics lesson on top of all that, filling itself with pat lines of exposition in which characters make boilerplate statements about the state of injustice.