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‘Fellow Travelers’ sets a ‘Lavender Scare’ love story against a backdrop of gay rights

<i>Ben Mark Holzberg/Showtime</i><br/>Matt Bomer and Jonathan Bailey in the limited series
Ben Mark Holzberg/Showtime
Matt Bomer and Jonathan Bailey in the limited series "Fellow Travelers."

Review by Brian Lowry, CNN

(CNN) — A love story told against a sweeping, decades-long backdrop of gay rights, “Fellow Travelers” finds its meatiest material in the Lavender Scare of the 1950s, and the persecution of gay government employees in the name of the fight against communism. Mixing real and fictional characters, the limited series turns Thomas Mallon’s novel into a historical trip that’s well worth taking.

Adapted by Ron Nyswaner (an Oscar nominee for “Philadelphia”), the central relationship features Matt Bomer and “Bridgerton’s” Jonathan Bailey as two officials working in the orbit of red-baiting Senator Joe McCarthy (Chris Bauer) and his closeted right-hand man Roy Cohn (Will Brill), who are determined to root out gays to advance their political objectives.

Bomer’s Hawkins Fuller is the savvy, seen-it-all member of the duo, who meets Bailey’s Tim Laughlin at a McCarthy event and proceeds to have another of the casual sexual encounters he carefully seeks out, navigating a treacherous line where exposure or even persistent rumors can end a career.

The bond between them, however, is unusually strong, with Tim, a young idealist that Hawkins playfully calls “Skippy,” craving a true relationship, something the cautious Hawkins, mindful of the risks, resists giving him.

Flash forward in the opening episode to the 1980s, where Hawkins – well established in government and married to the picture-perfect, well-connected Lucy (Allison Williams), the daughter of a senator (Linus Roache) – learns that Tim is stricken with AIDS. The narrative then flips back and forth between those time frames while filling in the intervening decades over the course of the eight episodes.

Employing a wide lens that includes other characters swept up in this tumultuous period – which includes Vietnam, the murder of Harvey Milk and disco between its bookends – “Fellow Travelers” is at its best depicting the fear under which gays were forced to live in the ‘50s, enduring homophobic comments at work and police raids at bars.

Of course, the prospect of exposure adds a certain exhilaration to those secret moments, which Nyswaner conveys through the explicitness of the sexuality, balanced against the harsh reality, as Tim puts it, of “constantly yearning for something you can’t have.”

Anchored by its strong lead performances, “Fellow Travelers” delivers a closing emotional wallop with its look at the initial governmental indifference surrounding the AIDS crisis, and all the struggles that have followed, up to and including the present. The only quibble would be the character makeup, which doesn’t quite indicate the passage of time.

Amid the many detours, historical and otherwise, “Fellow Travelers” finds its guiding light in the question of denying gays the benefits and freedom straight couples have enjoyed. While Hawkins, in his commitment to self-preservation, tends to reduce everything to sex, as Tim reminds him in a line that echoes across the decades, “It’s not who we sleep with. It’s who we love.”

“Fellow Travelers” premieres October 27 on Paramount+ and October 29 at 9 p.m. ET on Showtime.

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