‘Fellow Travelers’ resonates as a sweeping love story full of joy and pain

Playing two men in 1950s politics with an attraction society wouldn’t allow, Matt Bomer and Jonathan Bailey are heartbreakingly good in Showtime limited series.

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Tim (Jonathan Bailey, left) and Hawkins (Matt Bomer) meet at a Dwight D. Eisenhower victory party and begin a long, on-again off-again relationship.

Tim (Jonathan Bailey, left) and Hawkins (Matt Bomer) meet at a Dwight D. Eisenhower victory party and begin a long, on-again off-again relationship.

Showtime

It’s 1986. A 60-ish diplomat hosts a celebratory gathering at his lavish suburban D.C. home when he receives a visit from an old friend, who delivers a small package and some deeply troubling news.

It’s 1952. We see that same diplomat in his youthful prime, making serious eye contact with another young man at a 1952 party celebrating Dwight D. Eisenhower’s presidential win. We know these two men’s lives will be intertwined over the next three-plus decades, and we know there will be moments of joyous rapture and moments of unspeakable pain, and we know the timeline will shift so many times we’ll lose count along the way.

Just like that, the eight-part Showtime period-piece romantic drama “Fellow Travelers” announces its intentions to become Prestige Television — the kind of sweeping, cinematic, expensive-looking series that is based on an acclaimed source material (in this case, the Thomas Mallon novel of the same name) and aspires to attract the attention of awards voters.

‘Fellow Travelers’

Untitled

An eight-episode series at 8 p.m. Sundays on Showtime. The first episode is available Friday on Paramount+ (with Showtime add-on) and on demand for Showtime subscribers.

Created by Ron Nyswaner (“Philadelphia,” “Homeland”) and featuring powerful performances from a cast led by Matt Bomer, Jonathan Bailey, Allison Williams and Jelani Alladin, “Fellow Travelers” occasionally delves into treacly melodrama and has some borderline cringe-inducing dialogue and overly symbolic visuals. But on balance this is a beautifully shot and emotionally resonant story about a great love that was never allowed to fully flourish because of the bigotry and ignorance and wholly idiotic homophobia of mid-20th century America. (Not that things are perfect today, not even close, but there’s no denying some important progress has been achieved.)

“Fellow Travelers” is set primarily in the 1950s and 1980s, with stops in the tumultuous 1960s and the hard-partying 1970s as well. In the 1950s (cue “Rags to Riches” on the soundtrack), the granite-jawed Bomer is the dashing Hawkins Fuller, a decorated World War II hero who has a kind of icy charm he puts to great use as an ambitious and cunning political operative.

At the aforementioned victory party, Hawkins meets the boyishly handsome and idealistic Tim Laughlin (Jonathan Bailey), a good Catholic lad who has come to Washington hoping to work for his idol, Sen. Joseph McCarthy (Chris Bauer), on his anti-Communist crusade. After a few quietly flirtatious meetings, Hawkins and Tim begin a torrid affair filled with scorching-hot sex — but this being the 1950s, even a hint of their sexual orientation could spell ruin. The same goes for Hawkins’ friend Marcus Hooks (Jelani Alladin), a crusading Black journalist who encounters racism and homophobia at every step along his quest to be a writer who makes a difference, and who falls in love with Frankie (Noah J. Ricketts), an entertainer who performs in drag at a popular underground gay nightclub.

“Fellow Travelers” is one of those generation-spanning series that combines purely fictional lead characters with real-life individuals and events. Tim quickly becomes disillusioned while working a low-level job for McCarthy, who teams with the loathsome and oily Roy Cohn (Will Brill) to lead the ugly charge of the Lavender Scare, which resulted in thousands of gay men and lesbians losing their jobs and seeing their reputations permanently sullied, all because they were simply being their true selves.

Meanwhile, Hawkins — who claims no political affiliation and no religious beliefs — is a surrogate son to McCarthy’s staunch opponent, Sen. Wesley Smith (Linus Roache, playing a fictionalized version of real-life Sen. Lester Hunt), and eventually courts and marries Smith’s daughter, Lucy (Allison Williams), even as he continues to see Tim every chance they get.

Allison Williams plays the senator’s daughter who marries Hawkins.

Allison Williams plays the senator’s daughter who marries Hawkins.

Showtime

There’s never any doubt about where this story is going. We know from the first episode that Hawkins and Tim fell in love as young men and eventually became estranged, as Hawkins built a family in Washington and Tim moved to San Francisco to take up a number of social and political causes. We know that in 1986, Hawkins is preparing to move with his family to a diplomatic post in Italy, while Tim is in San Francisco and is succumbing to AIDS. We know these two men will share one final extended moment together.

“Fellow Travelers,” in keeping with that title, is all about the journey. It’s a story of a great love that couldn’t be celebrated in the open, couldn’t be shared on a daily basis, and it’s a historically accurate depiction of the terrible damage inflicted by McCarthy and Cohn in the 1950s, and the unforgivable refusal of the government to adequately fund the fight against AIDS in the 1980s.

Jelani Alladin and Noah J. Ricketts bring grace and strength to their work, and Allison Williams infuses Lucy with a quiet dignity that eventually gives way to an explosion of emotions built up over decades of knowing she was never Hawkins’ true love. Bomer and Bailey are heartbreakingly good as two people who, in a different, better world, would have spent their lives together.

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