It was probably just a matter of time before John Green and Josh Schwartz became collaborators. Green, whose novels include “Looking for Alaska,” “The Fault in Our Stars,” and “Paper Towns,” has become known for writing teenagers filled with so much restlessness and existential melancholy that they can hardly stand it. Schwartz, whose shows include “The O.C.” and “Gossip Girl,” has built a television brand based on brooding teenagers who wish they could skip straight to adulthood. Both their characters tend to be precocious and wild-spirited, determined to live (as “Looking for Alaska” puts it) “a more-than-minor life.” And in fact, Schwartz optioned the rights to “Looking for Alaska” before it was even published.
In adapting it almost 15 years later as a limited series for Hulu, Schwartz and longtime producing partner Stephanie Savage have brought the novel to life with meticulously calibrated sentimentality. Miles (Charlie Plummer), once Green’s narrator, is a kid so desperate to both fit in and stand out that it almost hurts to look at him. His new life at Culver Creek, a creative school flung out in the Alabama woods, feels more like a summer camp. There are prank wars; there is drunken drama; there is heartbreak. Teenagers lose their virginity to an acoustic cover of “Milkshake” and share cigarettes on abandoned bridges. It feels like a fantasy a kid like Miles might dream up, even though Green wrote “Looking for Alaska” to be a thin facsimile of his own experience at a school just like Culver Creek.
Miles quickly falls in with a group of like-minded kids — the enigmatic Alaska (Kristine Froseth), the self-serious Colonel (Denny Love), and the matter of fact Takumi (Jay Lee) — who love nothing more than to quote literature and try to one-up each other’s wits. As a recovering pretentious teenager, I sympathize — but I also know exactly how exhausting it is both to keep up such a facade and to be anyone who has to be around it. No matter how smart they think they are, their superiority complexes can be tough to stick out over the course of eight episodes.
Of course, anyone even glancingly familiar with the original novel (or Green’s oeuvre in general) will know that Culver Creek’s world won’t be idyllic for long. Schwartz and Savage asked critics not to spoil exactly how or why, but frankly, the tragedy that the show teases until the bitter end is obvious from the jump. (Plus, the answer is a quick Google search away, given that the book was released in 2005.) In delaying the inevitable, Hulu’s “Looking for Alaska” takes its time letting us get to know Miles, his friends, and Culver Creek in general so that the moment of truth will land even harder — a gamble that pays off only in some respects.
The biggest success “Looking for Alaska” achieves is in shading out its secondary characters. (Miles, while perfectly nice, is more of a reflecting mirror for everything surrounding him than an intriguing character in his own right.) Ron Cephas-Jones as Miles’ favorite teacher makes a potentially obscure character tangible, while Timothy Simons as the blustery principal finds ways to let his genuine empathy come through. Lee makes the most of his limited screentime, as does Sofia Vassilieva as Miles’ tertiary crush turned co-conspirator. Love in particular makes an immediate and lasting impression as the Colonel, whose smarts and resentment get the better of him more often than not. In the latter episodes, after the tragedy has well and truly struck, his furious grief is a blaze that lights up the screen. With eight episodes, there’s rarely a character who doesn’t get to reveal some more vulnerable layer. These cracks in the veneer sometimes take too long to show themselves — the middle episodes particularly sag in anticipation of the explosive final stretch — but they’re always welcome.
The hardest job among the cast, however, belongs to Froseth. As Alaska, she has to portray a character alternately depicted as mysterious and vulnerable, flinty and fragile, wildly intelligent and crushingly naive. The series and Frosteth take great and obvious pains to flesh Alaska out beyond the basic role of Miles’ first love, which could so easily flatten her into nothing at all. It works, sometimes. Alaska, embodying just about every “lost teen” trope in the (literal) book, is as infuriating and magnetic as that implies. The show admittedly has to toe a tricky line since one of Alaska’s most defining qualities is that she plays her cards extremely close to the chest. She doesn’t want anyone to know her, and so the show, too, has trouble unveiling who she is. The best that “Looking for Alaska” can do is to make the “Alaska” of it all impossible to ignore.
“Looking for Alaska” premieres Friday, October 18 on Hulu.