‘Looking for Alaska’ Review: High-School Melodrama Done Right

Miles “Pudge” Halter (Charlie Plummer), the teen hero of Hulu’s Looking for Alaska, is obsessed with famous last words, like poet François Rabelais’ declaration, “I go to seek a Great Perhaps.” But as he confesses to his new friends at an elite Alabama boarding school, he’s never actually read the works of the writers he quotes, just their biographies. It’s a shallow perspective on the artists’ lives, and Looking for Alaska — based on John Green’s debut YA novel — could risk being a similarly superficial take on Miles’ story as he experiences joy and pain, love and loss.

Miles narrates the book, which sees the world and the other characters — particularly the beautiful and mysterious Alaska Young (Kristine Froseth), on whom Miles nurses a hopeless and barely-hidden crush — largely from his perspective. This long-gestating TV adaptation from Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage — who were producing The O.C. when Green’s novel came out back in 2005 — smartly recognizes the limits of that perspective, and of Miles himself.

He enrolls in the school because he’s never really been anywhere or done anything interesting. He’s a blank slate who gets filled in through his friendships with Alaska, his roommate the Colonel (a.k.a. Chip, played by Denny Love), and the other people he meets, and that blankness raises the question of why this should only be his story. The answer that Schwartz, Savage, and their collaborators come up with is that it shouldn’t. We follow Miles from beginning to end, but the Colonel, Alaska, and other students like sweet immigrant Lara (Sofia Vassilieva) and the Colonel’s rich girlfriend Sara (Landry Bender) come fully to life across the eight-episode miniseries, as do faculty members like religion teacher Dr. Hyde (Ron Cephas Jones, gruffly wise as usual) and dean of students the Eagle (a mustachioed Timothy Simons, terrific and human in what could be a thankless role in lesser hands).

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The series opens with a car crash, and the early episodes conclude with title cards announcing how many days are left until it happens. So we know tragedy is coming soon. But much of Looking for Alaska until that point is a more lighthearted high-school show, made by people responsible for one of the best examples of the genre ever(*). It gets the mundane as right as the melodrama, fulfilling Dr. Hyde’s advice to the students to “enjoy this time together. Small moments forge deep bonds.”

(*) The show is a period piece set when the book came out, which allows for two things: 1) A scene where Miles and Lara are watching The O.C. itself; and 2) a killer soundtrack packed with indie-radio staples circa 2005 like Rilo Kiley, Modest Mouse, Bloc Party, The Postal Service, and many more, along with some modern covers of Seth Cohen-friendly songs like Death Cab for Cutie’s “I Will Follow You Into the Dark” and Franz Ferdinand’s “Take Me Out.”  

The cast is exceedingly charming, with Froseth and Love particular standouts among the kids. Froseth and the writers don’t reveal all there is to know about the title character, but they make her three-dimensional and complicated beyond Miles’ attraction to her. (The show also points out that Miles isn’t the only one entranced by her on some level; when the Colonel has to choose between supporting Alaska and his girlfriend, Sara gripes, “You’re blinded by who she is — or who you think she is.”) And Love(*) is so charismatic and funny and (when the story calls for it) vulnerable that this begins to feel like his story as much as it is his roommate’s.

(*) The Colonel is white in the book. Making him African American not only opens up the part to a great young actor like Love, but adds many layers of complexity to the class warfare at the school between the Colonel’s friends (which also includes Jay Lee as Takumi) and the rich — and mostly white — “weekday warriors,” who go home to their mansions every Friday night.

After all the pranks and other wacky hijinx (including a swan attack hilariously scored to the White Stripes), the story takes the sad turn promised by that opening scene. If you can make it to the end without needing tissues, then you’re made of tougher stuff than a certain Rolling Stone television critic. But the catharsis feels earned, as does the level of answers that Schwartz, Savage, and company choose to provide about what happened and why. It’s a familiar coming-of-age story, but one executed at a high level, and with far more thought than usual given to all the kids who were forced to grow up long before the main character has to.

Hulu is releasing all eight episodes of Looking for Alaska on October 18th.

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