'Looking for Alaska': TV Review

Kristine Froseth helps make the search worthwhile.
10/18/2019

Hulu's miniseries adaptation of John Green's debut novel about Alabama boarding school students benefits from a strong cast even if it struggles to crack the title character.

With their winsome-but-appealing ensembles, pages of quippy dialogue and clear and emotionally heightened stakes, John Green's books are speedy page-turners even by YA standards. Chances are good, in fact, that the total time required to read Green's 2005 tome Looking for Alaska will be less than the eight hours it takes to watch Josh Schwartz's Hulu adaptation.

This is presumably part of the point: The stretched running time lets Schwartz and his team capture a lot of what makes Looking for Alaska charming and powerful in the book while allowing for the possibility that some of the characters who seemed thin on the page might become flesh and blood. Thanks to an absurdly compatible pairing of text and adapters, it often works.

Set in the distant past of 2005, Looking for Alaska is the story of Miles (Charlie Plummer) a teen whose primary initial personality trait is that he's enthralled by last words. He's poorly read and has a limited interest in history, but he could tell you the last thing uttered by every deceased former president. Miles has very few friends in his Orlando home, so he convinces his parents to send him to Culver Creek Academy, an Alabama prep school that boasts, among other things, a lush rural campus, a stern dean dubbed the Eagle (Timothy Simons), a vicious swan and the entrancing Alaska (Kristine Froseth), who will change Miles' life.

Miles, quickly and ironically nicknamed "Pudge," finds a circle of prank-loving friends at Culver, including roommate Chip (Denny Love), whom everybody calls "the Colonel," and Takumi (Jay Lee), who would have required a far longer miniseries to emerge as well-rounded. Towering over everything is the shimmering Alaska, a quirky, alluring enigma defined by her collection of unread books and a love of smoking.

The entire series is built around the lead-up to and aftermath of a horrible tragedy introduced in the opening scene. Compared to the book, the series is structured more toward the "before," again an effort to round out thin or exclusively eccentric characters.

When Looking for Alaska was published, Schwartz was TV's favorite wunderkind thanks to the initial explosion of The OC, and although the property passed through a variety of hands and formats in the intervening decade-plus, this is the right way for it to finally make it to the screen. Schwartz's reverence for the book is evident, and expanded or invented scenes maintain a practically shared voice, representing Green and Schwartz's compatible blend of pop-culture-savvy snark and aching earnestness.

The decision to keep the story in 2005 reduces the story-altering potential of the cellphone, lets Schwartz unveil a playlist of originals and cover songs straight out of his musical wheelhouse and, probably most effectively, cloaks the entire series in a nostalgia for the innocence and confusion of youth. It's a nostalgia that flows through the bucolic settings and sensitive series direction stretching from Sarah Adina Smith on the pilot through to Schwartz on the finale.

The expansion of the story aids in the building of the overall world, especially with supporting characters. As played by Love, the Colonel comes dangerously close to turning into the protagonist; the actor builds the character's chip-on-the-shoulder prickliness into a real personality and makes his love-hate relationship with Sara (Landry Bender) unexpectedly emotional. Sofia Vassilieva is able to do something similar with Lara, the exchange student who becomes a romantic interest for Pudge — a relationship that's a mixture of contrivance and convenience in the book but finds actual sweetness here. In his most substantive post-Veep performance, Simons effectively makes the Eagle into a figure of mockery, pity and, without ever overplaying it, respect. And Ron Cephas Jones continues his recent run as voice of wisdom and heartbreak as Dr. Hyde, the only member of the Culver faculty able to make an impression.

At the top of the call sheet, Plummer has a tougher task because, as in the book, Pudge is unformed to the point of being almost fetal; his intentional unsteadiness is hard to warm up to even if it's being played exactly as intended.

The biggest struggle, of course, is with Alaska, the first but not last Green heroine to exist only as a riddle to be solved, or inevitably not solved, by the male hero. Like Green before him, that makes Schwartz into an extension of Pudge, each man bound and determined to understand Alaska. The miniseries gives Alaska traces of interiority, but I don't think it succeeds in making her autonomous any more than the source material did. Still, whether she's playing a construct or a person, Froseth is a marvel. As she proved in Netflix's The Society, the actress is more than capable of imposing her own wordless fragility and exuberance on even the clumsiest and clunkiest of teen drama dialogue. Froseth sells the hypnotic quality and psychological uncertainty that the story sometimes cannot.

Looking for Alaska is still flirting with some of the semi-risque elements that made the book a lightning rod for controversy. It's a reflection of shifting societal norms and Peak TV that the juvenile smoking feels quaint, the sexuality pales in comparison to that on display in the similar yet far sharper Sex Education and certain depictions of mental illness play like romanticized spins on the first season of 13 Reasons Why. Later episodes, bathed more in montage-driven pathos than true introspection, made me wonder if that romanticizing should offer some cause for wariness. Episodes are often followed by call-to-action support websites. Perhaps those URLs should be made even more prominent?

Schwartz, working as ever with Stephanie Savage, didn't exactly abandon the YA space after The OC and Gossip Girl, but Looking for Alaska scratches the genre itch better than his other Hulu series, The Runaways. Dominated by Froseth and the solid young cast, it's a solid adaptation of a much loved book, even if its successful adapting can't always fix its problems.

Cast: Charlie Plummer, Kristine Froseth, Denny Love, Jay Lee, Landry Bender, Sofia Vassilieva, Uriah Shelton, Jordan Connor, Timothy Simons, Ron Cephas Jones
Creator: Josh Schwartz, from the book by John Green
Premieres: Friday, Oct. 18 (Hulu)