Starring Matt Bomer and Jonathan Bailey, Ron Nyswaner's limited series Fellow Travelers (filmed in Toronto), based on the novel by Thomas Mallon, blends political drama with a heart-wrenching and passionate love story about two men who fall in love in 1950s McCarthy-era Washington, D.C.
Where to watch Fellow Travelers: Paramount+ on Oct. 27
Creator: Ron Nyswaner
Cast: Matt Bomer, Jonathan Bailey, Allison Williams, Jelani Alladin, Noah J. Ricketts, Will Brill, Matt Visser
Directors: Uta Briesewitz, Destiny Ekaragha, James Kent, Daniel Minahan
Number of episodes: 8
In 1952 Hawkins "Hawk" Fuller (Bomer), a war hero turned bureaucrat, meets Tim Laughlin (Bailey), a young Catholic man and recent college graduate, who just arrived in Washington, D.C., with a dream to work with Senator Joe McCarthy (Chris Bauer). Something Hawk helps him achieve.
The attraction between Tim and Hawk is incredibly clear, but they're meeting during the Lavender Scare, the McCarthy-led mission to rid "sexual deviants" of government jobs, meaning queer employees, linking them to possible Communist influence.
While Mallon's book largely stayed in the 1950s, aside from a short preface in the 1990s, the Fellow Travelers series bounces back and forth between decades. Tim and Hawk's relationship evolves throughout the years, also while the political and cultural backdrop for the story shifts.
Nyswaner's approach is effectively able to tell a robust love story, while also using the jumps in timeline as a way to building a really appealing tension and curiosity for the audience. They need to find the missing puzzle pieces to put the narrative together.
"I wanted to spend more time with them," Nyswaner told Yahoo Canada. "Then I moved ... into the '80s because the AIDS crisis was such a pivotal event in my life, and then let's have them be somehow connected to the AIDS crisis."
"Did they see each other? Did their paths cross between the '50s and the 80's? Well then let's find a way for them to sort of get together in the '60s and in the '70s."
Nyswaner described this process as a really "fun" part of making the show, specifically not telling the story chronologically. In fact, the series actually starts when an older Hawk, married to Allison Williams' character Lucy, finds out that Tim is sick and living in San Francisco
"That, to me, has this great thing of creating for the audience something to think about and question. How did they get from this to that? What happened in between in their lives?" Nyswaner offered.
"We leave out certain details and then you find out sometimes that, oh they must have been talking about that thing that happened. It kind of creates a mystery, which I think is really fun."
'Characters who are allegedly likable are boring'
The charisma that exudes from both Bomer and Bailey is electric. Pair the two actors and Fellow Travelers gains that little hint of entertainment magic. The feeling you get watching them act together makes you particularly interested in this journey and locked to the screen.
When it comes to the character of Hawk, in particular, there's a real attractiveness to his flaws, particularly his selfishness.
For Nyswaner, he stressed that the "likability" of a character isn't something he's ever concerned about.
"I find, often, characters who are allegedly likable are boring," Nyswaner said. "I believe every character's point of view on the world is valid for that character and we write right from that position."
"Hawk is perhaps a challenging person to be in love with, I'm not sure that he necessarily wants to be in love with somebody. I think he protects himself from that. ... He also really knows how to survive and I think being a survivor, it doesn't mean that you're a bad person, it means that you're really good at surviving. ... One of our directors, Destiny Ekaragha, ... she said, 'I love Hawkins Fuller.' She said, 'I want to be him. I want to be beautiful. I want to do whatever I want and have as much sex as I can get, and not care about anything.' Yeah. Who doesn't? So in some ways Hawk, to me, he's living a dream."
'It's not just watching two good looking people have sex'
A line that's been used about many TV shows and movies related to the approach to sex scenes is that they're used to "move the story forward." While that may not always be the case for every piece of entertainment, for Fellow Travelers, the intimacy between its characters, how intimate they are, the circumstances of those personal interactions, intensify the stakes for these characters.
As Nyswaner explained, "power" is a fundamental component to all sex scenes in Fellow Travelers.
"We were supported all along, by the way, and Dante Di Loreto, who's the president of Fremantle studio that made it, said a long time ago, 'Let's make the sex scenes so hot that straight men will want to have gay sex,'" Nyswaner said. "So that's something to go for."
"The rule was, every sex scene is about power. This is a relationship of unequals, in a way, ... unequals in terms of who desires who more. Tim is the one in love, with the crush of his life, ... and so open and vulnerable, wants to give and give and give. Hawk is, I think, quietly in love with Tim, but he's got to be very careful about not letting Tim disrupt his life. You bring that dynamic into the sex scene, then the sex scene has stakes, and it has energy. It's not just watching two good looking people have sex."
For anyone watching Fellow Travelers, a core element of the story is that "love is dangerous."
"We can apply that very specifically to loving people at a time of political turmoil, like now," Nyswaner said. "There are parallels to what's happening in the United States and other democracies across the world, where demagogues craving political power use fear, and pit one group against another, not because they give a damn about who those people really are."
"They do it because it gives them power. That was true with McCarthy. It was true the way the government treated people with AIDS, and it's true now. But I think love in general, for everybody, is dangerous, because you can lose the thing that you love. ... The show is saying, no matter how painful it might be, take a risk and love somebody."