Based on the 2005 John Green novel of the same name, “Looking For Alaska” was made to be adapted for television by Josh Schwartz. In fact, in 2005, it was set to be adapted by him as a feature film; but even after writing a screenplay that Green reportedly loved, the movie remained in development hell, with constant delays for years. Then in May 2018, it was announced that Schwartz would be writing the eight-episode limited series for Hulu, executive producing alongside his Fake Empire partner and longtime collaborator Stephanie Savage.
Now it’s finally here, and despite the story originally being written by someone else entirely, “Looking For Alaska” fits Schwarz and Savage like a glove. This is far from the duo’s first adaptation—“Gossip Girl,” “The Carrie Diaries,” and Marvel’s “Runaways” all exist—but it is impressive just how much the source material and the finished product makes it feel like their own creation. “Looking For Alaska” is a story that fits right into Schwartz and Savage’s teen drama ethos.
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“Looking For Alaska” tells the story of Miles “Pudge” Halter (Charlie Plummer), a teenage boy from Orlando who is obsessed with famous last words and has become consumed by his desire to seek “the Great Perhaps,” a concept inspired by the last words of poet Francois Rabelais. This desire sends him aways to his father’s alma mater, Culver Creek Boarding School in Alabama, to find something less boring and safe than the life he’s always lived. He immediately gets his wish for excitement upon meeting his roommate, Chip “The Colonel” Martin (Denny Love), who introduces him to his new world—and the class feud against the privileged rich kids at school, known as the Weekday Warriors—which includes his laidback friend Takumi Hikohito (Jay Lee) and the third-wave feminist and whirlwind that is Alaska Young (Kristine Froseth).
In the grand Dawsonian (as in, “Dawson’s Creek”) legacy of teen drama characters, there is a lot of dialogue in “Looking For Alaska” that is bound to make you say “That’s not how teenagers talk.” On top of that, they also talk a lot—perhaps too much—until the moment before the series’ major tragedy, the moment where words could have possibly saved their friend from going off into the night. It’s an affectation that falls in line with the concept that makes “Looking For Alaska” work as well as it does (both as a story and as a miniseries): “Looking For Alaska” realizes that, for a teen, every single action and choice is the most important, life-altering action and choice you can make.
The series’ backdrop also allows Schwartz—by way of his regular music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas—to return to a place he knows very well: the defining music of the aughts. The soundtrack for “Looking For Alaska” is a mix of era-popular songs—like J-Kwon’s “Tipsy,” The Darkness’s “I Believe in a Thing Called Love,” and a novelty dance song that provides such an amazing moment to witness that you shouldn’t have it ruined for you—and the indie rock heavy original soundtracks of Schwartz’s three biggest shows of the era, “The O.C.,” “Chuck”, and “Gossip Girl”. For an audience that grew up with those shows, “Looking For Alaska” creates the perfect wave of nostalgia, one that will send those memories flooding back to that time when everything was life and death and your very being was defined by things like your love of specific music or book or art.
As a result, “Looking For Alaska” functions well as a series for both a contemporary teen audience and an audience that would’ve been teens when these characters were. While the 2005 setting is subtly recognizable—relying more on things like casual puka shells and Takumi’s entire look than obvious trucker hats and Juicy sweatsuits—it’s also not so unrecognizable to teen audiences now. The story should also be universal to anyone who has ever had a teenage experience and to anyone who has longed for something more, especially given your circumstances in life.
“O.C.” diehards, especially, will and should gravitate to this series not just because of the music but because “Looking For Alaska” is also a love letter to Schwartz’s first and arguably most important series. Schwartz even recreates one of the most iconic shots of “The O.C.”— Ryan in the passenger seat of a car on his way to Chino, passing Marissa, from the pilot, and then the Season 1 finale—for Alaska and Miles, even though Miles is really more of a Seth Cohen (with his starter packs and awkwardness during the very 2005-specific “group hang”) than a Ryan Atwood.
Alaska, on the other hand, is a complete Marissa Cooper—only without the weakness that would otherwise imply. Plummer captures the milquetoast nature of the character (both the funny and frustrating aspects of that), while also finding a way to make your heart break for him. In fact, it’s impossible for your heart not to break for pretty much all of the characters on this show at this point—besides maybe the Weekday Warriors—even Mr. Starnes (Timothy Simons), aka “The Eagle.”“The Eagle” truly encapsulates to the teen perspective of this series, as these characters find him extremely intimidating, despite there being nothing really intimidating about Simons in a post-”Veep” world or the character itself. It almost feels like the one misstep in casting at first, until you realize the latter.
For the sheer amount of teen dramas that still exist during this era of “Too Much TV,” the staggering lack of straightforward, earnest teen dramas truly sticks out. Especially with every new announcement of reinventions on a classic (“Clueless,” which already had an underrated TV adaptation; “Gossip Girl”) or the concept of a classic that’s inspired so many now-successful successors that it has to crib from those successors to survive in this television climate (Schwartz and Savage’s “Nancy Drew”).
It seems that nearly every teen drama now has to have a larger-than-life twist, whether it’s murder mysteries, supernatural abilities, a Lynchian nightmare, or in “Riverdale’s” case, all of the above. Yes, there is a death in “Looking For Alaska”, and the characters try to make sense of it, but it is not a mystery series. Even the mystery of who the rat was is not truly central to what the full story is and what makes this series work. “Looking For Alaska” is your standard, tried and true, coming-of-age story. And for that, it stands out from the rest.
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