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The truth about 'Fellow Travelers'
Can I make it past the pilot of Jonathan Bailey and Matt Bomer's politically charged gay love story?
The truth about everything* is different every week! This week, it’s EJECTOR SEAT, where I watch the pilot episode of a TV show old or new, and ask myself (literally) whether it’s worth carrying on (based on this episode only).
What’s this, then? Travellers? A holiday show? Are Anne Greig and Judith Chalmers back to show us salubrious places to drink sundowners on the Amalfi coast?
What are you on about? No, Fellow Travelers – note the US spelling – is the new drama taking in the Lavender Scare of the McCarthy days in the 1950s and the ‘80s AIDS crisis, based on the novel by Thomas Mallon and from some of the team who brought you the movie adaptation of My Policeman. No wait, come back!
Another political prestige drama? Yawn!
This one’s different – it’s hella gay. And, perhaps unusually for this kind of drama, it’s fronted by two gay actors: Matt Bomer and Jonathan Bailey
Gay men playing gay men? Who knew such a thing was possible?!
Now, now, we’ve come on leaps and bounds in recent years so we should maybe go into this open-minded.
Or open-mouthed. Sorry, I’m gay. Right, what’s the story?
It’s the Reagan-era Eighties. Bomer is the suave, sharp Hawkins “Hawk” Fuller, who, when we meet him, is a successful diplomat with a loving wife and a perfect family. When a face from his past shows up unexpectedly at a celebration, bringing a message from someone once clearly very special to Hawk, we’re transported back three decades to Hawk’s time as a political staffer at the Capitol. (I couldn’t work out what his actual job was but he seemed pretty influential.)
So we start in the ‘present day’ and flash back almost immediately? Classic pilot behaviour!
Absolutely. But we return to the present day often to see the implications of this visit. 80s Hawk clearly has demons to exorcise, and bridges to build.
I’m guessing with Matt Bomer playing this guy, Hawk’s past is more pink and glittery than his present domestic situation would suggest.
Yes, within seconds, 1950s Hawk is swaggering into a public toilet with his hat low over his eyes and his hand on his ha’penny.
Ah, the 50s, not historically the best time to be gay. Or indeed anything other than white, straight and well-off. So this isn’t a comedy?
No, but Hawk picks up a little something (a guy called Eddie) in the toilet – a world away from the grim, mouldy Broadwick Street public lavs – and rogers him senseless so it’s not all doom and gloom.
Do you see it going in?
No, but there’s no sparing our blushes on any of the s•xual scenes in this episode and, I assume, the rest of the series.
The irony of having to censor the word ‘s•x’ to avoid puritanical email filters. It is 2023.When's Jonathan Bailey going to turn up, then?
We meet him trying to order a glass of milk at an election night event and being roundly ignored because he’s in cosplay as Hollywood’s idea of an ugly nerd (glasses over a handsome face) and is awkward and bewildered. I was shocked to discover the character’s name was not Eugene, like most TV geeks, but Tim Laughlin, a devout catholic who Hawk has in his sights. Brilliant nominative determinism there that could’ve been improved only by Bailey’s character being named Tim Chicken. Never mind.
No imagination in Hollywood. So they bang?
Yes, there’s not much hanging about. Hawk gets Chicken – sorry, Tim – a job in McCarthy’s office, which seems somewhat… I don’t know, but I can hear the music from Jaws, and Tim drops off a book to say thank you. He’s almost intercepted by Hawk’s evangelical secretary Miss Addison who’s keen to see commies and deviants stamped out by the witchfinder general. Everyone is on the lookout for a miscreant they can rat out to McCarthy to get clout. Luckily, Hawk has a comrade close by, in the shape of Mary Johnson, who has a few sapphic skeletons of her own lurking in the closet.
But… they bang?
Yes! Sorry. They bang. Two gay men, in the closet, banging in secret. A tale so frequently told but rarely so graphically. Perhaps the most laudable part of the show is the unflinching s•x scenes. Not for titillation, necessarily, but because it feels like some sort of justice. How many gay dramas have we endured, especially set in times of sepia, where the camera respectfully pans away to a vase of flowers or curtains gently billowing in the breeze? Not here. Once sweet Tim Chicken admits he fancies Hawk, Matt Bomer is licking Jonathan Bailey’s armpit with the fervour of someone attacking a Solero in 40° heat. Tugging at whatever lurks beneath Bailey’s waistband, he asks him who’s his boy, to which our Chicken Little answers “I am”. It’s not just a s•x scene, it’s not gratuitous, it’s an instant flag that this is a story about power. Hawk even tells Tim he’ll call him Skippy, whether he likes it or not.
Certainly! Hawk may be in the closet but, in private, he’s comfortable with his sexuality and fully in control. You get the sense, from perhaps overly expositional conversations with Mary and handsome journalist Marcus Hooks – whose older version is the messenger interrupting the 1980s celebration – that their queerness was an open secret, almost flaunted. It seems, from what I saw, that other than cops lingering by toilets to bust people for cottaging, pre-McCarthy, everyone was at it!
So not as seedy as other depictions of gay s•x set around this time. No knee-tremblers in damp bedsits.
No, in fact the glossy finish is almost jarring – a gay speakeasy looks like a plush members’ club, Hawk’s favourite hookup toilets are lit like a Malmaison. But then I realised: these are actual elites – wealthy, influential, ostensibly untouchable – rather than the ones we’re always hearing about, locals like you and me who buy the odd Charlie Bigham shepherds pie for dinner. (Disclaimer: I have never done this! HOW much?!?). They think their power will protect them, so long as they’re vaguely discreet. How wrong they will turn out to be.
Most impressive scene?
Okay, can I talk about the s•x a little more?
It’s not exactly hoists and harnesses as far as the eye can see, but the show has traces of kink. Hawk’s into foot play and, in one key scene, rams his toe into Tim Chicken’s mouth, while dirty-talking to “his boy”. (Jonathan Bailey looks mildly horrified, he must be thinking he’s a long way from Bridgerton.) It’s not subtle – on first glance, Bomer is the power top and Bailey the scrappy naif helpless against Hawk’s charms. But Chicken is taking control here, using Hawk’s fetish to get what he wants – in this case, access to a select party. (Variety did an interesting behind-the-scenes with the director of this episode to discuss the power play in this scene.)
Also, s•x scenes like this are necessary and important, aren’t they? They force viewers to confront the reality of gay intimacy. We’ve had decades of movies and TV shows presenting straight s•x as the pinnacle of romance and passion, as the default, in the mainstream. Few shows, especially ones like this, have shown s•x so graphically. Right?
Right. And casting matters too. Nobody is saying sexuality sensitive casting should be obligatory, and it’s no guarantee of chemistry or authenticity in performance. (I wrote about this a while ago.) But here, it is vital, and it works. Even if I didn't know both leads are gay, their bodies on screen tell me they are. It removes that extra layer of disbelief every queer person feels when watching someone like them be played by a straight actor. The two actors know their way around another man’s body and even if there is not a single other sex scene in this entire show, Fellow Travelers has more than done its job. Next: more like this, but more diverse. Every group deserves to see themselves banging on screen.
There’s a danger the sex will overpower everything. It’s a legitimate concern in the pilot – the dialogue can be clunky and the interesting side characters, Mary and Marcus, and Hawk’s future wife Lucy, deserve more screen time. Plus, the slickness almost suggests this era is a golden age. It’s like Mad Men, but with bumming, and perhaps the pervading sense of dread from living among the politics of this era is watered down. I can’t decide whether the 1980s scenes paint a more depressing or a hopeful picture – in one corner, Reagan ignoring AIDS, but on the other, guys in tight tops snogging in the street in San Francisco. I suppose, having lived that decade, that’s fitting; it was a frightening, confusing time.
So, pilot tropes. We’ve got flashbacks, exposition, and a love interest, how about a dream sequence? Or a doomed best friend?
Well, it appears 1980s Tim Chicken might not be in a good place.
Oh. Eighties. Gay. San Francisco. Gotcha. It’s one of those. Standout performances?
Both leads are great. Bailey’s accent is decent, and despite his beauty (I mean, come on), he shines as the awkward geek wracked by catholic guilt. Bomer is controlled, his face barely twitching throughout. I get the feeling this performance is purposely robotic, as Hawk hides his true personality, but when flashes of vulnerability finally come, it doesn’t feel earned. Oh, and there’s no way two political gonks would be so ripped in the early 1950s! Every queer person here is gorgeous – justice for us horse-frighteners with so-called dad bods, ffs. The 1950s was our peak aesthetic!
Are they played by different actors in the 1980s?
OMG no, they age them up and it’s liver spots o’clock! It’s like every racy ‘80s miniseries your mum wouldn’t let you stay up late to watch. But it makes it easier to connect to the characters, I guess.
Big question! The Ejector Seat is poised, are we pushing the button and parachuting out or staying until the bitter end?
I’ll watch another, eventually. It’s worth watching. Our Paramount+ sub runs out next week and this is a weekly release, so maybe we’ll wait until the rest comes out and get another free trial. If it had gripped me harder – much like Hawk did with Chicken’s [BLANK], I’d maybe have shelled out and made it an appointment to view, but the cost-of-political-ineptitude crisis has spoken.
That’s the cheapest stunt I ever heard.
Look, love, we are where we are. Coco Pops are nearly £4.50 in the Co-Op.
Fellow Travelers is available to stream weekly in the UK on Paramount+
MORE FROM ME: I reviewed the Guardian Blind Date this week, which was in Berlin and a little strange (strange for the UK, not for Berlin, it was quite tame for Berlin). READ NOW
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