John Green’s popular novels tend to follow a comfortable, adaptable formula, one that usually involves a pair or groups of teens and young adults who, for one reason or another, are social outcasts to varying degrees. This displacement makes them the perfect subjects for his brand of storytelling, which places its characters in situations that border on the fantastical, and where nearly every aspect of the story’s setting, as well as the lives and personalities of its central characters feels heightened, very nearly removed from reality. That set up has resulted in varyingly successful adaptations of Green’s work with The Fault in Our Stars and Paper Towns, and now, Looking For Alaska, which, despite its good intentions and likable cast, takes the notion of familiar unreality and fashions something regrettably artificial.
Adapted from the novel of the same name (Green’s first, published in 2005) by The O.C. creator Josh Schwartz, the eight-episode limited series fits nicely into the streaming niche Schwartz has made for himself on Hulu, as co-creator of Marvel’s Runaways. Like the teen-angsty superhero drama Schwartz and Stephanie Savage have been working on since 2017, Looking For Alaska unfolds in a world where hyper-efficient, hyper-stylized teens experience the bare minimum of adult supervision or guidance, allowing them to engage in a variety of ill-advised behaviors and participate in the sort of misadventures that blur the lines between fictionalized coming-of-age mischief and dangerous misconduct. But the series is so heightened, from its characters’ non-personalities on down, that none of it seems particularly real, or significant in any meaningful way.
Looking For Alaska is primarily the story of Miles Halter, a social outcast played by the terrific Charlie Plummer (Lean on Pete, The Clovehitch Killer). Like most of the characters here, Miles isn’t so much a person as he is a loose collection of personality quirks, the most prominent of which is his penchant for biographies, and, subsequently his encyclopedic knowledge of famous people’s last words. Although this talent comes off as a thinly-veiled reiteration of James Leer’s encyclopedic knowledge of the way in which various celebrities died in Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys, it’s clever enough to make Miles some fast friends at the Georgian boarding school he opts to attend for his senior year.
The device serves another purpose as well: it distinguishes Miles in a bookish, but not too bookish way from his equally bookish roommate the Colonel, aka Chip (Denny Love), and classmates Takumi (Jay Lee), Lara (Sofia Vassilieva), and, of course, the apple of his eye, Alaska (Kristine Froseth, The Society). Being smart and well-read isn’t particularly noteworthy at Miles’ new school, as he soon discovers he’s merely a small fish in a very big pond. And while that alleviates some of the stigma he experienced at his former school, it leaves Miles and many of the other characters feeling somewhat two-dimensional.
This problem is exacerbated by the series’ reliance on a kind of artifice that creates characters out of some broadly defined eccentricities, in lieu of giving them actual personalities or imbuing them with the kind of charisma that would make a reader or watcher want to know more about them. While the narrative requires that Miles function as a mostly formless lump of clay when the series begins, the same is not true of the Colonel and Alaska — and to a lesser degree, Takumi and the school’s headmaster, known as the Eagle (Timothy Simons). They are both cut from the same cloth, one that attaches greater importance to their amplified dialogue than to the characters possessing any worthwhile emotional depth.
This kind of characterization continues apace as the series introduces a running feud between the Colonel and the lacrosse players — called “the Weekday Warriors” on account of their ability to spend weekends at home with their wealthy families. The feud escalates when the school’s code of “no one rats” is presumably broken, resulting in one of the Weekday Warriors (who looks suspiciously like a very young Noah Emmerich) finding himself in hot water when a late-night tryst with his girlfriend is interrupted by the Eagle. The jocks naturally think the Colonel is to blame, and decide to take their frustrations out on Miles, who winds up being hazed and subsequently discovers Alaska’s not the happy-go-lucky book lover she projects.
Looking For Alaska plays fast and loose with ideas of trauma and authenticity, and it does so in such a way as to suggest the latter is not possible without the former. It does this while wading unabashedly into the waters of — ugh — manic pixie dream girl-dom, which doesn't help its depiction of Alaska or the boy pining for her one bit. Though its cast is immensely likable and more than up to the task at hand, this limited series never manages to fill the characters or its narrative with enough emotional depth to accomplish what it’s trying to.
Looking For Alaska streams exclusively on Hulu beginning Friday, October 18.