Review: ‘Looking For Alaska’ but Finding Talky Teens

The novel “Looking For Alaska,” by John Green, was published in 2005, and that same year Josh Schwartz, the creator of “The O.C.,” signed on to write and direct a feature adaptation.

Then 14 years went by. Green wrote and co-wrote six other books, including the huge hit “The Fault In Our Stars,” and he amassed a tremendous vlog audience. Schwartz finished “The O.C.,” created “Chuck” and co-created “Gossip Girl” and half a dozen other shows with Stephanie Savage. YA literature gained a broader level of cultural respect, and teen TV conquered new genres and platforms — thanks in part to Green and Schwartz and Savage themselves.

And now the long-awaited “Looking For Alaska” adaptation has finally come to be, not as a feature film but as an eight-episode mini-series on Hulu, born into a world it already helped shape. It’s a new show, but somehow not.

The story, inspired by Green’s own high school experience, is intact: Miles Halter (Charlie Plummer) is restless in his hometown and heads off to boarding school seeking adventure, but the kind of adventure that anxious nerds seek — mostly adventurous reading and maybe a prank or two. He immediately befriends his roommate, known as The Colonel (Denny Love), The Colonel’s friend Takumi (Jay Lee) and their friend Alaska (Kristine Froseth).

The series is structured around a “before” and “after” storytelling device, first deployed in the show’s opening moments: A catastrophic car crash looms, and the show counts the days leading up to it and the days that come after. Though the crash is the turning point of the story, it doesn’t come until quite late in the season, which feels like a lot of “before.” Though I guess that’s how befores often feel.

Alaska is special, because girls in stories like this are always special. She’s a wannabe Rayanne Graff with a book collection, the girl who feels more and needs more and has more secrets, who’s “bad” but in the best ways, who knows things about sex and alcohol. The volatility is part of the draw.

“You don’t sound like you’re in high school,” a mumbly liquor store clerk tells Alaska, who thinks she is acting cool but is actually acting annoying.

“That, Gus, is the whole point,” she replies.

It’s the point of lots of teen shows, and lots of the actual lives of teens, this desire to be older, freer, smarter, worldlier. The way this show enacts that frustration, though, often lapses into tediousness, closer to the worst goopy grandeur of “Dawson’s Creek” than the energetic cleverness of “The O.C.”

Part of that is the strenuously precocious, self-consciously pretentious dialogue — in and of itself not a vice, and certainly accurate for the kind of teens these teens are. But “Looking For Alaska” is nostalgic for itself, like it’s admiring itself in a mirror instead of making eye contact. This neutralizes the immediacy and intimacy that can make coming-of-age stories so special. We can go along for the ride, like “Freaks and Geeks,” or we can have some distance to reflect, like “The Wonder Years,” but not both.

“Small moments forge deep bonds,” the wise teacher (Ron Cephas Jones) tells Miles and his peripheral love interest (Sofia Vassilieva). I mean, yeah, it’s true, but declaring it breaks the spell, and turns a genuine small moment into a benediction from a dying sage. That’s a good moment to have, too, but it’s a different thing.

The show’s need to make declarations leads it astray in other ways, too. Technically it’s set in 2005, but that is established via titles and music only, not through any other kind of specificity. The soundtrack is omnipresent, with a who’s who of indie cool of the time (Rilo Kiley, Modest Mouse), but the show is mostly from Miles’s point of view, and the songs don’t seem like songs he’d listen to. He is not secretly cool. He’s a kindly, virginal dweeb, and the only thing he demonstrates any interest in, other than Alaska, is memorizing famous people’s last words.

So the soundtrack becomes less of an expression and more of a framing device. We have entered dangerous territory when a Sufjan Stevens song is not sufficiently sad and thus an even sadder cover of the song is used in its stead — and not to portray sadness, but to evoke it where the script and performances can’t or won’t.

Which works. Of course it works! A lot of the show works because the conventions of teen stories are effective. There’s a big dance. There are pranks. There is one mean administrator (Timothy Simons) who is secretly worthy of compassion, parents who don’t get it, parents who do get it, a holiday, a party, truth or dare, important kissing, cigarettes.

The story and particulars of the book are present, but not Miles’s interiority or processes. Part of adolescence is sometimes feeling like you’re stuck as the incidental supporting character when everyone else is the star of a show. In Miles’s case, though, he’s right.

Margaret Lyons is a television critic. She previously spent five years as a writer and TV columnist for She helped launch Time Out Chicago and later wrote for Entertainment Weekly, among other publications. @margeincharge

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