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The new Showtime series Fellow Travelers tells a story of the relationship between two closeted men in 1950s Washington, D.C. And while the story unfolds against true events and features real people (including Roy Cohn and Senator Joseph McCarthy) among its characters, it’s also based on a 2007 novel by Thomas Mallon—which is to say that it has a loose relationship with the truth.
But what might be most notable about the fictional story the series tells is how real it can feel at times—and that’s purposeful. “We were going to take our inventions as much as possible from history,” says Ron Nyswaner, the series’ creator.
The main characters of Fellow Travelers, the government employees Hawkins Fuller (Matt Bomer) and Tim Laughlin (Jonathan Bailey), aren’t real, but much of what happens around them is. Both men find themselves in the orbit of McCarthy and Cohn, who helmed the feared House Committee on Un-American Activities, and much of the drama that unfolds around them is based on real events. Similarly, other real people and moments from the era—including the pioneering Black journalist Simeon Booker, the drag performer Stormé DeLarverie, Bobby Kennedy, and a U.S. Senator whose son’s love life was used to blackmail him—add to the drama.
The production employed a researcher, who annotated and made footnotes for each episode, and Nyswaner made efforts to delve into non-fiction to help him build the world he was writing. “It's fairly historically based, even though it is fiction,” he says. “I have stacks of books on McCarthy, on Cohn, on Washington, on the Lavender Scare, and they all have tons of post-it notes in them, because that's how I do research.”
Some of the books Nyswaner read to help build the Fellow Travelers world included James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room and Another Country, Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar, and Eric Cervini’s The Deviant’s War, and he also watched films like George Clooney’s Good Night and Good Luck to zero in on the paranoia of the era and the sharpness of its dialogue. (Part of the series that take place in 1980s San Francisco were influenced by Nyswaner’s own experiences; “I thought about my own life and how I came of age in the 1960s and ’70s,” he says, “I have an opportunity now to take things I know about being a gay man in the second half of the 20th century—who came out dancing to Donna Summer and then went through the AIDS crisis—and surviving it.”)
Other reading materials necessary for creating Fellow Travelers included the actual public statements of both McCarthy and Cohn. “The requirement for my writers was that anything that McCarthy and Cohen said in public, they must have actually said,” Nyswaner explains. “Dialogue in private is different, but anything that was said in a hearing or in speeches is historically based.”
Another aspect of what the series depicts is a kind of emotional truth. Not something you might pick up in history books, but instead a feeling of the time that might be unrecognizable for some audience members today. “What the period gives you are very clear high stakes, which is not to say that life is easy now for queer people, just that it’s very clear what the stakes are,” Nyswaner says. “If you worked for the government at the time of Fellow Travelers, if you were investigated and you were removed from government work, it was on your record that you were a sexual deviant. People were committing suicide because they had come to Washington to help shape the world. It's important to note that some people really had to suffer and be brave in a way for us to be where we are today.”
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