GLEN WELDON, HOST:
A warning - this episode contains discussion of sex.
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WELDON: The series "Fellow Travelers" chronicles the passionate and complicated relationship between two gay men from the McCarthy era of the 1950s through the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. Over that time, the two men, played by Matthew Bomer and Jonathan Bailey, follow opposite paths. One marries and has kids for the sake of his career. The other dedicates himself to living openly and becomes a protester and activist. In the meantime, they have lots and lots and lots of sex. I'm Glen Weldon, and today, we're talking about "Fellow Travelers" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.
Joining me today is NPR film critic Bob Mondello. Hey, Bob.
BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Hey, Glen. Good to be here.
WELDON: It's great to have you. "Fellow Travelers" begins in Washington, D.C., during the era of Senator Joseph McCarthy's crusade against communists and homosexuals in the federal government. Matthew Bomer plays Hawkins, or Hawk, a handsome, swaggering State Department official who hides an active gay sex life even as he courts and ultimately marries the daughter of a powerful senator. She's played by Allison Williams. Jonathan Bailey plays Tim, a gay man who works for McCarthy. He believes in McCarthy's cause and struggles with his devout Catholic faith, even as he falls madly in love with Hawk.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FELLOW TRAVELERS")
JONATHAN BAILEY: (As Tim Laughlin) I committed mortal sins for you.
MATT BOMER: (As Hawkins 'Hawk' Fuller) Oh, here we go.
BAILEY: (As Tim Laughlin) I could go to hell.
BOMER: (As Hawkins 'Hawk' Fuller) Hell is a fantasy, Skippy. So is heaven, the Trinity, democracy and the holy war against communism. Grand ideas that just get people killed. Now...
WELDON: The series is about the tension between the two men, both sexual and ideological. Hawk is perfectly content to stay in the closet and live a lie if it means he can hold on to his position. Tim wants more, and as the years pass, the two men keep coming back together only to find the power dynamic between them shifting back and forth. The series is told largely in flashback, as a middle-aged Hawk reflects on his relationship with Tim, who is now dying of AIDS. "Fellow Travelers" is based on a 2007 novel by Thomas Mallon. It was created for television by Ron Nyswaner who wrote the films "Philadelphia" and "My Policeman." The series is airing weekly on Showtime and streaming on Paramount+. You figure that out. I can't be bothered. Bob, it is so cool to have you talking about television for us. Have we ever done that before with you?
MONDELLO: Well, I thought you were having me on solely because I'm old enough to have actually remembered a lot of this.
WELDON: I mean, that's - it's a factor.
MONDELLO: I - you're right, because I don't usually think that television series deserve to be series. I'm used to thinking in terms of 2 1/2 hours for a movie and 3 1/2 if you're Martin Scorsese and you're doing it. But basically, you can fit the whole plot of a novel into that. And why on heaven's name would you want to deal with it on a longer term? And oh, my God, this makes sense.
WELDON: All right, tell me why.
MONDELLO: Well, partly because you're dealing with four decades of material and a whole bunch of characters. It's not just a couple of characters who pop in and out. There were places where I was thinking, OK, you could maybe do without this part, but not a lot. And the complexity of how things are changing over the four decades is what makes this so compelling. "Angels In America" is the same material, in a way, right? It's also talking about Roy Cohn and about AIDS. It takes you all the way through, and it does it very, very differently. And I was thinking of this as sort of the melodrama version.
MONDELLO: But I think it's complex enough that you'd have trouble compressing it. You'd lose a lot if you compressed it. There's - the characters have real character arcs. There are big changes in them across decades, and I think you'd lose a lot.
WELDON: Yeah. That's interesting because all of that - we'll get to this, but all of that is an addition of the show. The novel focused on these two characters in the 1950s.
WELDON: The show is doing a lot of this heavy lifting you're talking about. But let's start off by talking about the chemistry between Bomer and Bailey, by which I mean let's talk about sex, baby. I mean, the phrase that I kept coming back to, Bob, was insultingly attractive actors.
WELDON: I mean, every time they take off their shirt, you're like, just shut up.
WELDON: And I've said before that Bomer especially is a hot basilisk. You can't look him directly in the face 'cause of that - there's that much facial symmetry...
WELDON: ...You know...
WELDON: ...What I'm saying?
MONDELLO: Yeah. No, he's a - he reminds you of Don Draper all the way through the thing. I mean...
MONDELLO: ...You can't take that off of the table there. And Bailey is - I mean, you know, having seen him in whatever the - with ruffles in "Bridgerton..."
WELDON: "Bridgerton." Yes. Yes.
MONDELLO: ...It had no connection for me with reality, right? I'm looking at him and I think, well, he's a good-looking kid. But...
MONDELLO: ...Other than that, I didn't have any real reaction. In this, I'm looking at somebody who is attired in the way that people were attired in the 1950s. Therefore, these were the older teens and early 20s guys that I looked up to and lusted after. When I was 12, I would have followed him anywhere.
MONDELLO: They're incredibly gorgeous. And they - I was reading, I think it was in the Times, the New York Times, when they were contemplating how to do the sex in here, they wanted never to repeat themselves...
MONDELLO: ...And always to be talking about power dynamics so that every time you see them, something is changing. And they did that pretty well. They left relatively few things off the table.
WELDON: I mean, let's be real, though. I mean, this body fat percentage did not exist...
WELDON: ...In the era of three martini lunches and beef stroganoff. I don't buy it for a second. And it's funny how they strive to get everything else - all the historical detail correct. I also like that they introduce some light kink into the sex without tut-tutting about it, with just saying, like, this is all playful. But my favorite thing about the show is how it captures the danger of being gay back then, of living in the shadows and speaking in codes and whispers and trying to...
WELDON: ...Find a place just to get together is a big hassle. And you see, one thing it also establishes is that being gay - just being gay was actually being part of a criminal enterprise because these gay bars back then were run by the mob. The cops got paid off to keep people's names out of the paper. Now, the author of the book, Thomas Mallon, is an author of historical fiction who is famous for getting the details right. He does a crazy amount of research. The show was filmed in Toronto, so that one federal style building in Toronto is getting a lot of work out.
MONDELLO: I spent half of the eight episodes trying to figure out where the hell is that building. I know it...
MONDELLO: ...Has to be down near the district courthouse. And it wasn't.
WELDON: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I mean, like, I did a "Fellow Travelers" walking tour of D.C. So the Cozy...
WELDON: ...Corner which they go to is on Florida Avenue. It was...
WELDON: ...A - it's now a Korean barbecue joint. The Chicken Hut was an actual gay bar just off Lafayette Square. It's now a parking garage. It closed in the '70s. Did you ever find yourself at the Chicken Hut, Bob?
MONDELLO: I did not find myself at the Chicken Hut. That was a little bit before I came out, but it - I know of it.
MONDELLO: I knew about all those places. As a gay kid, you are conscious of them in ways you probably wouldn't be otherwise. And yeah, they were there, and there was no question about it. And I remember the fear. I remember I had an uncle who was gay who came to visit us on occasion. And, you know, he would wander around town, and I worried about him.
WELDON: I mean, this is the thing that I couldn't put my finger on on the show, frankly, Bob, is I did detect something in the show's depiction of McCarthy and Cohn, this notion that McCarthy's crusade was justified somehow, but he just went about it in the wrong way. He alleged vast conspiracies. He claimed he had a list of 205 communists. He didn't. He made all that up. He destroyed careers and lives. And I'm getting a sense that this guy's methods were wrong, but his crusade was right. Did you pick up on that in the show?
MONDELLO: Well, I was distressed about it because as that is the attitude that Tim takes to his boss, McCarthy. And it's wrong, but it is consistent with the way a lot of people felt about him. And I think if you were a real conservative person back in the 1950s, you thought he was doing the right thing. Things changed for enough people that he was no longer able to do what he'd been doing.
WELDON: Well, that's the thing. I mean, at the time Mallon wrote this book, he was a gay Republican. He's not anymore. I mean, he's left the Republican Party in 2016. He's probably still gay. But that's what I'm picking up on here is just a sense of not wanting to commit to the monstrosity of this and creating a culture of fear. I think this show really does create the culture of fear. But I think you also sense something else going on because the book, as I say, stays focused on Hawk and Tim in the '50s. The show adds the characters of Marcus, who is a Black reporter played by Jelani Alladin, and Frankie, the drag performer played by Noah J. Ricketts. It also attempts to give Hawk's wife Lucy, played by Allison Williams, if not an inner life, then more to do than she gets in the...
WELDON: ...Book. Any thoughts on those performances?
MONDELLO: The acting in all those cases is quite nice. I especially liked Frankie...
MONDELLO: ...A terrific and brave and strong character. What was interesting in this is that the guys who would normally be called tops usually were the ones who were, one way or another, terrified, right? Who were going...
MONDELLO: ...Through life terrified by everything that was out there. And I thought that was just an interesting observation. I don't usually like television series, but this one felt like it was doing something substantial, and I can't imagine this as a film. It - I don't think it would work as well as a film.
WELDON: Yeah. I mean, I can imagine the novel strictly adapted as a film 'cause I mean, this - also, the show brings in the time element. It brings in the anti-war movement of the '60s, the hedonism of the '70s, a very fun series of Fire Island scenes, and if you know the book, you can feel the show straining to widen out and then ultimately become kind of a chronicle of the queer rights movement.
MONDELLO: Yeah, yeah.
WELDON: I think the show understands - help me out if it doesn't, but, like, I think the show understands that the stakes for these characters are high, but that can't be the only lens that we look at the fight for queer rights through, because these guys, Tim and Hawk, could hide inside a white male power structure very easily...
WELDON: ...The way others who were at the forefront of the queer movement at the time - people of color, trans folks, lesbians - just couldn't. They couldn't afford - they didn't have that luxury. And as a show, I kept feeling that this show wanted to be a true ensemble piece but was still hamstrung by that original storyline. What'd you feel?
MONDELLO: I hear what you're saying about it straining. I didn't feel that. I thought it was - it worked as a unified whole.
WELDON: OK, that's good, because that's clearly the intent.
WELDON: The intent is to bring in more voices. I felt like we could have heard more from some of those other voices. But also, let's talk about the way - this show's character arcs, because there is a thing that happens in shows that attempt to depict the passage of time as broadly as this does, and that has to do with exposition, right?
WELDON: So you would have to place these characters in context in the era that they're in and depict or somehow show how the major events are shaping them. And you can do that in a bunch of different ways. You can do that with title cards. You can do it in newscasts, which I always think is a cop-out.
WELDON: Or you can do it by shoving those big events into the mouths of your characters in a very stiff and clunky way. And I think this opts for that last option again and again and again, and that is the biggest swing. And as it turns into specifically an AIDs narrative, it falls victim to what a lot of AIDs narratives fall pitfall to, which is you have your characters start spouting statistics and policy initiatives instead of human dialogue. But again and again, I noticed it happening, but I couldn't get mad at it...
WELDON: Because those statistics and those policy initiatives are what these characters, if you've ever met an activist, that's what those characters talk about. That's what they care about.
WELDON: So that worked for me in a way that it doesn't in a lot of other shows or movie series like this.
MONDELLO: You know, you talked earlier about how well-researched things are. And I'm going to guess that the television people were doing their research a little bit less well...
MONDELLO: Because - now, (laughter) this is me as a Broadway nut. At some point, Mr. McCarthy says he's going to "Oklahoma!"
MONDELLO: Well, "Oklahoma!" had closed by the time...
MONDELLO: ...He started doing the anti-communist stuff in the Senate. And so, I mean, it had been closed for a couple of years. He should have been saying "Guys And Dolls." Those kinds of little things are...
MONDELLO: ...Stupid and will matter only to, you know, the gay guys who are watching this maybe...
MONDELLO: ...Who are Broadway queens. But that's - isn't that half the audience? So anyway, I have trouble with it.
WELDON: One would think. I think the other thing this show does is reveal kind of a grim truth, which was there were a hell of a lot more Hawks than Tims back then and perhaps now. And if it weren't for activists like Tim who pushed for more, maybe nothing would have changed.
MONDELLO: Yes and no. I think the existence of HIV changed the world for gay people generally. It's a horrific thing to say, but it is what allowed gay rights to advance in this country because basically all of us came out of the closet at once. You just couldn't avoid it. You had to help your friends. You had to help yourself. You had to - it just - it was suddenly there. Tim is a character who is saintly, right?
MONDELLO: I mean, at one point I think he's actually referred to as St. Tim, right?
MONDELLO: I think that they make clear what I was saying earlier, that the guys who are - who we would all refer to as tops today, the ones who are strong and dominant in life were the ones who were most closeted because they had the most to lose by losing that dominance.
WELDON: And I think, to your point, Bob, they do address that, this notion of everybody coming out at once. It does become an element of the series at the very end, which we can't go into.
MONDELLO: I kind of want to say to anybody who sees this that if you know an elder gay out there, talk to them about this. This was a profound time in American life and in gay life in America, profound. And the people who lived it are disappearing.
WELDON: Bob, I appreciate that. And thank you for being here.
MONDELLO: Thank you.
WELDON: We want to know what you think about "Fellow Travelers." Find us at facebook.com/pchh. That brings us to the end of our show. This episode was produced by Rommel Wood and edited by Jessica Reedy and Mike Katzif. And Hello Come In provides our theme music. Thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. I'm Glen Weldon, and we'll see you all tomorrow.
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