Novelist Thomas Mallon’s 2007 historical romance, “Fellow Travelers,” originally translated into a widely produced opera in 2016, has now been reimagined as a melodramatic and almost operatic TV miniseries. This new adaptation, created by the acclaimed Ron Nyswaner (“Philadelphia”), makes its debut on Showtime, promising to captivate audiences.
Devoted readers of the novel, which unfolds against the backdrop of the Lavender Scare—an era that targeted the LGBTQ+ community, paralleling the 1950s Red Scare—will find familiar characters, key events, and even snippets of dialogues. However, in its transformation into a TV series, it has undergone significant expansion, adding extra decades, settings, characters, and plotlines. Much like the novel’s willingness to take some liberties with historical facts and figures, the series has taken creative liberties with the source material. It seeks to involve its characters, some notably altered, more deeply and heroically in pivotal political events, keeping the drama intense and concluding with a more inspiring tone than the novel.
While politics played a substantial role in the original work and much of Mallon’s literary portfolio, the TV adaptation has streamlined this aspect to focus primarily on the most well-known facets of McCarthyism.
The two central figures from the book, Hawkins “Hawk” Fuller (played by Matt Bomer) and Tim “Skippy” Laughlin (played by Jonathan Bailey), remain the heart of the series. Hawk, akin to Don Draper in appearance—tall, dark, and handsome—is self-assured, self-serving, and emotionally distant, seemingly uninterested in love or spiritual matters. He describes himself as a registered Republican who doesn’t vote and feels similarly detached from religion.
In contrast, Tim grapples with profound religious convictions and a fervent admiration for Joseph McCarthy, all while battling his own sexuality. Hawk effortlessly conceals his true self, engaging in casual encounters with strangers, while Tim is struggling with his feelings. Their complex, unbalanced relationship becomes the core of the series, with additional subplots interwoven into the narrative.
The story begins in 1986, where Hawk, now married to Lucy (played by Allison Williams), is celebrating his upcoming posting to Milan. Meanwhile, Tim, who has been tying up loose ends, receives a visit from Marcus (portrayed by Jelani Alladin), a character unique to the series. Marcus delivers a significant memento and the devastating news of Tim’s battle with AIDS, all while expressing his desire to cut ties with Hawk. The narrative then shifts to 1952, when Hawk and Tim first cross paths at an election night gathering. It’s evident from Tim’s spectacles that he lacks Hawk’s worldliness.
The series alternates between the 1950s and 1980s timelines in the early episodes, with later forays into the ’60s and ’70s. These different time periods are marked by distinct fashions, music, and cultural elements, reflecting the evolving gay culture and rights. Hawk appears relatively unchanged as the decades pass, while Tim’s appearance undergoes significant transformations. This visual contrast may symbolize Hawk’s emotional stagnation compared to Tim’s personal growth.
In 1952, Hawk reconnects with Tim, sitting on a park bench with a book and a bottle of milk. Their initial conversation is highly expository and leads to Hawk securing a job for Tim in McCarthy’s office. Tim’s motive is to have a spy within McCarthy’s circle to protect his old friend, Sen. Wesley Smith (played by Linus Roache), a character created for the series. Smith, a vocal critic of McCarthy, also happens to be Lucy’s father. Hawk believes that Smith has the potential to become president. Tim’s willingness to divulge this information to Hawk can be attributed to his romantic fascination. Tim’s complex feelings for Joseph McCarthy are similarly incongruent with his homosexuality, which he has suppressed for a long time.
Human nature’s complexity is further exemplified by Roy Cohn (played by Will Brill), McCarthy’s chief counsel, who was both gay and a persecutor of gays. While his sexuality was a closely guarded secret in the mid-1950s, it’s evident that many were living in the closet at the time. The series dedicates ample screen time to Cohn, McCarthy, and committee consultant David Schine (played by Matt Visser), shedding light on their personal and professional lives.
Close to the central duo is Hawk’s assistant and confidant, Mary Johnson (played by Erin Neufer). Her character has undergone significant modifications from the book, but Neufer’s performance remains impactful. Some of Mary’s narrative responsibilities have been transferred to Marcus, a sharp-tongued reporter, offering a glimpse into Washington’s vibrant Black queer community and addressing issues of racism.
“Fellow Travelers” is a polished Hollywood production featuring romantic music and attractive actors who deliver their lines with considerable energy. As a Hollywood production centered on gay life, it’s a valuable addition to the landscape. The series sheds light on the historical tragedy of LGBTQ+ individuals who faced discrimination and persecution, with a clear resonance with contemporary challenges to LGBTQ+ rights.
Nonetheless, “Fellow Travelers” can become emotionally exhausting to watch due to the constant tension and peril the characters face. Even in less dramatic moments, the threat of discovery, humiliation, and the loss of jobs, social standing, family, and friends is ever-present. As the series progresses through the ’60s and ’70s, reaching its climactic 1980s, it can occasionally come across as facile and artificial, though it is undoubtedly a heartfelt and sincere portrayal of a pivotal period in LGBTQ+ history.
In summary, “Fellow Travelers” is an important addition to the representation of LGBTQ+ history on screen. While it effectively conveys the fear and challenges faced by its characters, a more nuanced portrayal of ordinary, everyday life could have added depth to the narrative, echoing the way life unfolds between its highs and lows. Tim’s desire for domesticity is a poignant theme throughout the series, but it’s clear from the beginning that this aspiration is unlikely to be fulfilled.