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Fellow Travelers Review: This Elegant Gay Love Story Transcends Most of Its Clichés

Matt Bomer and Jonathan Bailey are captivating as closeted bureaucrats navigating a tumultuous era

Matthew Jacobs
Matt Bomer and Jonathan Bailey, Fellow Travelers

Matt Bomer and Jonathan Bailey, Fellow Travelers

Ben Mark Holzberg/Showtime

A show that evokes AIDS and McCarthyism in its first 10 minutes invites immediate apprehension. Oh, great, another buffet of gay anguish. You'd be forgiven for dismissing Fellow Travelersas a redundant exercise in historical hardship arriving in an age when queer media has graduated from such punishing retrospection. But over the course of its eight episodes, the first of which premieres Oct. 27 on Paramount+ With Showtime, the series finds an elegant, fitfully stirring lens on this defining segment of 20th century America. 

Fellow Travelers inserts fictional protagonists into the all-too-real iniquity of Washington, where Joseph McCarthy and Roy Cohn's fearmongering made them the country's hypocrites-in-chief. Though the D.C. duo loom large in the show, they are a mere backdrop for the two closeted bureaucrats whose evolving political allegiances — and steamy romance — occupy its central interest. Hawkins Fuller (Matt Bomer) is a married war hero with a cushy position at the State Department, and Tim Laughlin (Jonathan Bailey) is a Christian idealist who lands a gig in McCarthy's office right in time for the senator to smear Communists and queers. 

On paper, all of this sounds typical, even crushingly predictable. To be fair, it often is. Hawk and Tim are instantly smitten, and they spend much of the 1950s sneaking in and out of each other's apartments in the dark of night. But Fellow Travelers doesn't rest on easy moral righteousness. Hawk and Tim are themselves flawed. Love that lives in the shadows can't truly shine, and as the series waltzes back and forth across a 30-year span, the men's devotion to each other and to their political principles recedes in fascinatingly complex ways. 


Fellow Travelers


  • Matt Bomer and Jonathan Bailey are steamy and captivating leads
  • A compelling lens on political hypocrisies
  • Visually elegant


  • The series runs a bit too long
  • It can't avoid gay trauma clichés

Ron Nyswaner, who wrote the scripts for Philadelphia and last year's Harry Styles vehicle My Policeman, oversaw the adaptation of Travelers, which is based on a 2007 novel by Thomas Mallon. Because this is familiar narrative territory for Nyswaner, he has a knack for conjuring the nuances of a generation tainted by persecution. Even if the sepia gloss that director Daniel Minahan (Deadwood, American Crime Story) establishes in the opening episodes constitutes a prestige-TV cliché, it adds a gentleness to the proceedings. Compared to the dim government offices where blowhards wield power, the glow that illuminates Tim and Hawk's liaisons looks tender and dreamy. 

The eight hour-long episodes cover a lot of ground, from Vietnam War protests to the assassination of Harvey Milk and the onset of the HIV crisis. Fellow Travelers' inaugural moments establish where the show will more or less end: in 1986, with Tim dying of AIDS. The intervening flashbacks chronicle two men as they vacillate between hiding their identities and rebelling against norms. As Tim exchanges religion for progressive fervency, Hawk maintains a conservative ruse with his picture-perfect wife (a well-cast Allison Williams). The men flit in and out of each other's clutch, finding more intimacy together than they can with anyone else. 

Bomer and Bailey are captivating. Their chemistry far surpasses the mechanical dullness that has become common in TV pairings. In the show's many sex scenes, the actors exhibit the sort of heat lacking in most of today's mainstream filmmaking. But it's the smaller moments that are the most telling. As the hyper, eager-to-please Tim, Bailey is fidgety and wide-eyed, his naivete curdling as his grasp of the world hardens. Hawk is the cocksure elder statesman, holding power over Tim until both start to realize that Hawk's self-obfuscation is no guidepost. They're at once lovers and foils, a dynamic familiar to a similarly closeted journalist friend (Jelani Alladin) who has his own awakening as he watches underground gay bars become police targets. 

The rub of Fellow Travelers is that it very much overstays its welcome. The time-hopping structure leads to late revelations about the ways Tim and Hawk have helped and hurt each other over the years, but by the final two episodes, that mix of tenderness and turbulence feels redundant. Nyswaner and the other writers, which include former Nashville showrunner Dee Johnson and Harlem alum Brandon K. Hines, could have trimmed at least an hour off the show without short-changing its many threads. How many reminders of Hawk's wife's suspicions do we really need? 

Still, this is a well-considered tour of American turpitude. If the ending veers toward the trauma buffet that pop culture has finally done away with, it's offset by the swoony love story that grounds the show. Not all history lessons need to be left in the past. 

Premieres: The first episode premieres Friday, Oct. 27 on Paramount+ With Showtime before airing Sunday, Oct. 29 at 9/8c on Showtime, with subsequent episodes debuting weekly
Who's in it: Matt Bomer, Jonathan Bailey, Allison Williams, Jelani Alladin, Will Brill, Chris Bauer
Who's behind it: Ron Nyswaner, showrunner
For fans of:Philadelphia, Brokeback Mountain, and other gay dramas
How many episodes we watched: 8 of 8