Arts, Television, Review

‘Looking for Alaska,’ but Finding Only Tired Melodrama

As it turns out, “Famous Last Words” is not just another My Chemical Romance song I frequented in eighth grade—they are also Miles Halter’s (Charlie Plummer) obsession and the title to the pilot of Hulu’s latest original series, Looking for Alaska. 

The series is an adaptation of John Green’s groundbreaking and Michael L. Printz award-winning young adult novel of the same name and centers around Miles, ironically nicknamed “Pudge,” as he acclimates to his new home, Culver Creek Boarding School. At boarding school, Miles befriends his rather unconventional roomate, nicknamed “The Colonel” (Denny Love), the all knowing Takumi (Jay Lee), and the ever mysterious Alaska Young (Kristine Froseth), all of whom define his time there. 

Taking place in 2005, the same year as the novel’s release, the series presents as a typical teen drama with Miles at the forefront, poetically seeking out his own manifestation of Francois Rabelais’ “Great Perhaps.” As he begins each new introduction with the dying words of the famed, Miles discovers that he is far more than an agglomeration of morbid closing remarks. Their ending is Miles’ beginning. 

Similarly, the show’s ending serves as its beginning as well. Opening with a devastating, slow motion car accident, each following episode is then categorized as “Before” or “After,” counting down the days leading up to the tragic, albeit foretold, shift. 
Created by Josh Schwartz, the show has been in the concept stage for the past 14 years, with  Schwartz agreeing to both write and direct a film adaptation shortly after Green’s novel was released. Creator of hit shows The O.C. and Gossip Girl, Schwartz is no stranger to teen drama. Building off the dialogue it helped to create in 2005, Looking for Alaska touches on prominent subjects, such as feminism and underrepresentation in education, with a cleverness and poise characteristic of only Alaska herself. Schwartz keenly inserts a 2019 mindset into the early 2000s-based show, maintaining the social dialogue regardless of the 14 year age gap.

Despite its outstanding handling of pertinent topics, the series ultimately lacks the emotional depth and introspection into Miles’ experience that made the book so exceptional. Although narration is heard from him at times, it is often utilized to drive plot rather than provide a sense of omniscience to the audience, who is never fully sure how Miles is affected by his new surroundings. In having to face the continuous popularity contest posed by some of today’s most beloved high school dramas, including Riverdale and Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why, Looking for Alaska attempts to overcompensate through melodrama and loses its emotional appeal as a result. What has the potential to truly set this show apart from the rest ends up being its main defect.

When delving into the often-explored labyrinth of teen drama, it is overwhelmingly easy to get lost amon the cliché of it all. Miles’ father, Walter Halter (yes his name is Walter Halter) played by Joe Chrest, can’t escape his past, reliving the glory days of high school vicariously through his all-too-different son. Meanwhile, Alaska is a beautifully dangerous and complex female character colliding with the innocent and virginal Miles, both of them defiantly attempting to navigate the twists and turns of their own personal maze, their overly-polarized high school environment. 

Each of these themes have been presented hundreds of times over, but then again teen shows are riddled with cliché. To a certain extent their very existence has become the cliché, and that’s why we love them. These adolescent attractors also require a fresh take, however, in order to keep us coming back to each boy meets girl, popularity contest, nerd-transforming episode.

When reflecting on Looking for Alaska, The Colonel’s opening challenge to Miles when they first meet as roommates comes to mind: “You got 10 seconds to surprise me before I write you off as ordinary.” Looking for Alaska seems apparently void of any fresh take, instead substituting substance for saturation, berating viewers with novel, nerdy lovelock rather than sinking its teeth into the convolutions of teenage emotion.  

Looking for Alaska still has the potential of a deeply moving, reflective take on transition, mental health, and maturation. Published before its time, the series arrives only once all active themes have long since been exhausted by the modern spotlight. Confined by its commitment to cliché, the show remains looking for, but never really finding, a deeper purpose beyond the surface.  

Featured Image by Hulu

October 23, 2019