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The wins and flaws of 'Fellow Travelers,' a show about two gay men over 4 decades

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

The new series "Fellow Travelers" follows two gay men over the course of four decades, from the McCarthy hearings of the 1950s through the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. At the start of their relationship in 1953, both men work for the federal government in Washington, D.C. They live under the constant threat of exposure, even when they find themselves in the seemingly safe space of one of D.C.'s underground gay bars.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FELLOW TRAVELERS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Hey, buster. See that red line on the cash register there? That comes on, you better make 12 inches of daylight between you and your friend right here and do it fast - only takes three seconds for the cops to come downstairs.

SUMMERS: Glen Weldon is host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast, and he's here to talk about "Fellow Travelers." Hi, Glen.

GLEN WELDON, BYLINE: Hey, Juana.

SUMMERS: So, Glen, I mean, this sounds like a phenomenal setup for a show. Tell us a little bit more about the two main characters.

WELDON: Well, they're played by Matt Bomer from "White Collar" and Jonathan Bailey from "Bridgerton," two just egregiously, insultingly handsome actors. And it's about the tension between Bomer's character, Hawkins, who wants a successful State Department career - so he is perfectly content to stay in the closet, get married, have kids while hooking up with men - versus Tim, the character played by Jonathan Bailey, who's a lot more idealistic. He wants to live openly and honestly. And the show really drives home a grim truth, which was that there was a lot more Hawkinses than Tims back then. Lots of men lived their whole lives in the closet. And if it hadn't been for activists like Tim who weren't content, who kept pushing for more, nothing would have changed.

SUMMERS: It sounds really interesting. But, Glen, for you, having watched it, does this show fall short in any ways?

WELDON: Well, I mean, who's telling the story for me - right? - because historically, of course, the fight for queer rights was led by people of color, was led by trans folks, you know, marginalized groups who could be more easily targeted because they couldn't blend into the white male power structure like these guys could. They didn't have that luxury. So this show makes an effort to include other points of view, with a storyline about a Black reporter played by Jelani Alladin. But, man, that focus on Bomer and Bailey's characters just narrows what the show can end up saying.

SUMMERS: So I understand that it's based on the 2007 novel by Thomas Mallon, and he's an author of historical fiction who's known for doing his research and getting those fine details right. Does that carry over into the series?

WELDON: Oh, it sure does, and now we're talking about my favorite thing about the show. It really captures how dangerous it was to be gay at that time. The characters are always looking over their shoulders, speaking in whispers, speaking in codes, hiding in the shadows and scrambling just to find a place to be together. And you can hear that tension in this clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FELLOW TRAVELERS")

JAMESON KRAEMER: (As George Bauers) I'm being investigated. They had me followed and caught me coming out of the Chicken Hut.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) The Chicken Hut? Christ, George, even my mother knows that place is queer.

WELDON: Now, that Chicken Hut they mentioned, Juana, was an actual gay bar here in D.C. just off Lafayette Square. I walked past it the other day. It's now a parking garage.

SUMMERS: Wow. I mean, Glen, we've been talking here about authenticity, but historically - and especially on TV, I want to note - queer sex is treated very differently than straight sex. Is that the case here?

WELDON: Oh, no. No, we - it's not the case. We - listeners should know that. I mean, these two guys have lots and lots and lots of sex that is shot with exactly the same level of explicitness you'd see on any other streaming show with a with a straight couple. And, you know, for queer folks like me, that counts as progress. But, I mean, let's be real. In terms of authenticity, I mean, both these actors are very fit. They are both in Instagram fitness model shape, which doesn't really scream 1953 to me. But, I mean, the show gets so many other aspects of gay life back then right. I can forgive some anachronistic abs. You know, twist my arm. I'll muddle through.

SUMMERS: That is Pop Culture Happy Hour host Glen Weldon talking with us about "Fellow Travelers," which debuts Friday on Paramount+ and Sunday on Showtime. Glen, thanks as always.

WELDON: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF DE LA SOUL'S "MEMORY OF... (US) [FEAT. ESTELLE AND PETE ROCK]") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.