Finally, a Sexy Political Period Piece

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: SHOWTIME

We get it: There’s an overwhelming number of television shows right now. The streaming landscape is an impractical maze, and the good stuff easily gets lost in the shuffle. But most of us can still find one show that cuts through the noise. We call this “appointment viewing” — or the time you carve out in your busy schedule to watch the show you’ll want to unpack the next day with your friends while it’s still on your mind. Tune in here each month to read what writer Michel Ghanem, a.k.a. @tvscholar, deems worthy of a group-chat deep dive.

Over the last eight months of “Appointment Viewing,” we’ve covered a few queer television hits like HBO’s The Last of Us, and Prime Video’s Dead Ringers and The Lake. This month, the highly anticipated miniseries Fellow Travelers starts airing on Showtime, bringing Matt Bomer and Jonathan Bailey’s glistening muscles and a whole lot of gay yearning to our must-watch television list.

Wait, what’s this new, steamy gay show?

Fellow Travelers is an eight-episode miniseries based on the novel of the same name by Thomas Mallon, following the turbulent romance between fictional characters Hawk Fuller (Matt Bomer) and Tim Laughlin (Jonathan Bailey) after they meet in Washington, D.C., in the midst of the 1950s Lavender Scare and anti-communist paranoia fueled by Senator Joseph McCarthy (played here by Chris Bauer).

Hawk is a clean-cut war veteran and well-respected in the federal government. He takes it upon himself to help Tim, a newcomer to D.C. he spots at a party, by getting him a job in McCarthy’s office. Despite Tim’s best efforts to avoid Hawk’s seduction (as a devout Catholic riddled with shame about his sexuality), they start sleeping together during the government’s attempt to crack down on “deviants” amongst their ranks. The show is primarily centered on this hot-and-cold romantic relationship in the decades spanning the 1950s to the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s.

Although initially jarring to watch Bailey play a skittish nerd rather than a Regency-era hunk, both actors slip into their roles convincingly and their chemistry is undeniable. They are also joined by Allison Williams as Hawk’s eventual wife Lucy Smith, as well as a parallel love story between journalist Marcus Hooks (Jelani Alladin) and drag performer Frankie Hines (Noah J. Ricketts). Their story and relationship brings a queer Black perspective to a story that is otherwise focused on the white, gay experience.

Where can I watch it?

The Showtime series premieres on October 27, with one episode airing every Friday until mid-December. The show is created and partially written by Ron Nyswaner, who previously worked on the early seasons of Homeland and Ray Donovan, and a few episodes are directed by Daniel Minahan, whose style you might recognize from Halston. Fellow Travelers is one of Showtime’s buzziest projects since Yellowjackets, in part thanks to the star power of its leads. Former professional soccer player Robbie Rogers (and television powerhouse Greg Berlanti’s husband) also executive produces.

In terms of being rooted in historical realism, Fellow Travelers is reminiscent of television projects like Angels in America and It’s a Sin in the sense that the AIDS epidemic weighs heavily on the series as the impending catastrophe. It is Fellow Travelers’s ambition to cover multiple decades that helps it stand out in the canon of queer television. And contrary to what you might think from how many muscular men appear, Ryan Murphy was not involved in the making of this project.

So, is it actually sexy?

Fellow Travelers makes it clear within the first ten minutes: this will be a raunchy ride. These are some of the most explicit gay sex scenes I’ve seen on television, including, at one point, Bailey sticking Bomer’s entire foot in his mouth (among other things). Their passionate dom-sub sex dynamic isn’t all spectacle and titillation, though. The bedroom becomes the only space of intimacy and safety in an era when any form of queer visibility could mean losing your career — or worse.

Sex aside, the show is concerned with presenting an accurate and grounded idea of living as a gay man in the mid to late 20th century. The period set design and costume, particularly in the first half of the season that takes place in the 1950s, are stunningly realized. Real-life politicians of the era are also represented and given depth as characters, like Roy Cohn (Will Brill), who worked as McCarthy’s right-hand man during the hearings held to question army members and government employees on their suspected communist and sexual affiliations — despite being queer himself.

Although it feels like the show spends most of its time in the ‘50s before zooming through Harvey Milk’s assassination in the late ‘70s and the AIDS crisis of the ‘80s, Fellow Travelers is an emotionally resonant reminder of how damn hard it was to be queer throughout those decades: the sacrifices made in the name of reputation and safety, the corrosiveness of shame, the chronic fear of being uncovered or at the hands of the police’s violence, and all in the decades leading to one of the most mishandled epidemics in modernity. There is gay tragedy here, for sure—I cried during the finale. But it’s the emotional journey of watching these prominent, out gay actors put their hearts into playing characters who navigate love under the crushing weight of oppression that makes it so worth watching.

More From This Series

See All
Finally, a Sexy Political Period Piece