Sunday, November 17, 2019

Looking For Alaska

Creator: Josh Schwartz
Starring: Charlie Plummer, Kristine Froseth, Denny Love, Jay Lee, Sofia Vassilieva, Landry Bender, Uriah Shelton, Jordan Connor, Timothy Simons, Ron Cephas Jones
Release Date: 2019

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

Mention author John Green's name and you're likely to receive varying degrees of responses largely dependent on that viewers' age, gender, familiarity with young adult lit and pop culture in general. And it's just as likely that bringing up the writer of bestselling teen weepies such as "The Fault in our Stars" and "Paper Towns" will also induce some groans and eye-rolling because he's often accused of pedaling fluff without the substance to back it up. As the YA genre's taken off in the past decade with his and other contemporaries seeing their works adapted into big money movies, Green's emerged as even more of a punching bag. And it's difficult to argue, with dialogue and plotting that isn't exactly subtle, leaving little doubt he's writing exclusively for that demographic, and has no plans to stop pouring all the emotion that entails directly onto the page.

"Looking For Alaska" was Green's first novel, dealing with heavy and disturbing enough themes to frequently land it on lists of challenged books by schools and libraries in the years following its 2005 publication. The O.C. and Gossip Girl creator Josh Schwartz has been trying to develop it into a feature film since, and now, almost fifteen years later, it arrives as an limited 8-episode Hulu series. Seemingly too late, and yet strangely right on schedule.

We'll never know the kind of movie the original incarnation could have been if it came out as John Green fandom was taking off, but it's hard to imagine it being very good. It feels like the material desperately needed this time, distance and breathing room so everyone could step back and assess our culture through the rearview mirror. Now, with the proper delivery, the entire series becomes a clever, meta commentary on what that movie was supposed to be and how many of its ideas can be flipped on its head a decade-plus later.

By setting the series in the mid-2000's time period during which the book was published, Schwartz does the unthinkable in invoking nostalgia for a period and its music we haven't yet been tested in harboring nostalgia for. It's his finest hour, or rather eight, as he follows in the footsteps of Veronica Mars creator Rob Thomas by abandoning the traditional network model for Hulu earlier this year, to astonishing creative results. But if FOX trying to squeeze every last bit of juice it could out of The O.C. led to its early demise, the lasting legacy Schwartz's show left was its music. The mid aughts were kind of a last gasp for defining periods in music pre-smart phone, making the indie rock explosion so prominently showcased on that show ripe for reappreciation here.

That sound, an audio snapshot of the time, is something relived by these characters and us, with Schwartz pulling off the impossible in making Green's material seem cool, at its best giving off Stand By Me coming-of-age vibes. Subverting expectations, it invests nearly every supporting character with as much depth as its co-leads, while introducing us to young talents you can actually bank on becoming huge stars off the strength of their performances. A trip into the past well worth taking, it intelligently balances humor with an emotionally crippling tragedy, making for the rare adaptation that lacks the baggage and one-dimensional stereotypes populating this genre.

It's 2005 and nerdy, introspective teen Miles Halter (Charlie Plummer) is told by his parents that he's leaving his Orlando, Florida public school to attend Culver Creek Academy, a progressive private boarding school in Alabama that more closely resembles a sleepaway camp. While his father attended years ago, Miles isn't nearly as interested in school as he is last words. Famous people's last words, to be exact. It may be a strange, morbid obsession, but it does command the attention of his new roomate, Chip "The Colonel" Martin (Denny Love), who ironically nicknames him "Pudge," and the free-spirited, enigmatic Alaska Young (Kristine Froseth), whom Miles immediately falls for at first glance.

Along with Alaska and The Colonel's friend Takumi (Jay Lee), Miles is soon entrenched in the their long-standing feud with the "Weekday Warriors," a group of wealthy students they frequently pull pranks on. All this occurs while trying to avoid capture by the academy's strict, mustachioed headmaster, Mr. Starnes (Timothy Simons), aka "The Eagle," and taking in the philosophical insight of their ailing religion teacher, Mr. Hyde (Ron Cephas Jones). But it isn't all fun and games, as the days dwindle down and build to an accident that will forever alter who everyone grows to become.

The show lulls you into thinking it will be all about Miles' journey into young adulthood (i.e. William Miller in Almost Famous), as seen through his eyes as the awkward narrator. And it is at least partially that, but not to the extent you may have imagined, as that kind of one-dimensional storytelling approach doesn't really fly anymore, making for one of the many ways the series becomes the unlikeliest adaptation that would have spawned from it a decade ago. We get a lot of time with these characters and the rather originally unusual school setting inspired from an actual boarding academy Green attended in his youth. It works really well, simultaneously recalling high school and summer camp movies and helping to create a hazy nostalgia that runs pretty deep throughout.

The Colonel, named as such by Alaska due to his strategic, militaristic planning of pranks and schemes, serves as Miles' introduction into this world and it's a testament to the writing that there's an even more compelling backstory as to how he arrived at Culver than our narrator, whom he eventually draws out of his shell. The endlessly charismatic and dryly hilarious Denny Love outright steals the show in playing a character who doesn't easily suffer fools and isn't about to let his newest roomate become one, operating under a strict moral code, into which we get more insight with each episode.

There's a deep-seeded reason accounting for The Colonel's need to act as he does, but the writers are smart enough not to shove that explanation down our throats and instead let the talented actor show it, as we're never quite sure what will next set him off on one of his sarcastically truthful rants. And Miles, played with figgiting, befuddled excellence by Plummer, finds himself on the receiving end of many of them. If it seems insulting to only refer to Alaska as the object of Miles' obsession, or feel we should be past that tired trope, you'd be happy to know that Schwartz and the writers agree. Frequently going out of their way to slap him back into reality, they refuse to let him or us view her as any less than a completely messy and complicated character.

It helps that an Kristine Froseth is a revelation in the role, calling upon an entire spectrum of emotions to make Alaska at once disloyal and completely trustworthy, both abrasive and sweet, and a drinking, smoking literary-quoting narcissist on a path toward self-destruction, perhaps unintentionally taking her friends down with her.

To lift a phrase from the time, Alaska isn't a "Manic Pixie Dream Girl," whose entire existence is predicated on the shy, over-eager Miles winning her over, since, well, she's too challenging a personality for something like that, rarely knowing who she is herself. When viewers get Alaska alone (such as in one memorable local college excursion), she's so overcome by insecurity that merely functioning as a normal human being becomes difficult. Frequently, she can't, and yet, through all this, Froseth manages to outwardly maintain this girl's confident, likable facade throughout, frustrating everyone within her radius. Luckily for viewers, embracing this mercurial character isn't a prerequisite since we fully understand what she much she means to those who do.

The adults and other supporting characters are similarly drawn with depth and care, given time to their stories that couldn't have been explored in a 120-minute film version. So good in his Emmy-winning This is Us guest turn, Ron Cephas Jones does equally affecting work here as Culver's wise religious instructor, Mr. Hyde, another potentially contentious role that could have easily been a cliché in the hands of a lesser performer or writers. The performance sneaks up on you, culminating in a Thanksgiving episode that lays his full history on the table, giving Jones an hour to flesh this person out, and making all the surrounding characters that much richer for it.

The other faculty member, Timothy Simons' The Eagle, spends a lot of time playing a colder Rooney to the student Buellers, until the layers slowly start getting peeled back, culminating with his true motivations and fears bubbling to the surface in unexpected ways by series close.

Miles' Russian girlfriend Lara (Sofia Vassilieva), transcends her role as the inevitable third wheel in his Alaska infatuation with an agency and determination that eventually makes her incredibly relatable. The only supporting player arguably given the short end of the stick is Jay Lee's Takumi, who mainly serves as a sounding board for everyone, lacking any real purpose of his own until the big event ocurs. But once it does, his role comes more clearly into focus. Even the Colonel's mom, Dolores (Deneen Tyler), is written and performed intelligently enough that her backstory seems as substantial as just about anything else on screen.

Much of why this story initially draws you in is because the stakes are surprisingly low. It's fun just hanging out with these well drawn characters for six episodes and listening to them Dawson's Creek-speak about literature, philosophy and the meaning of life. And while that very prospect may have other viewers looking for the nearest window to jump out of, there is a clever, self-awareness to all of it that makes it feel more reminiscent of something like Dazed and Confused than the teen shows it's most likely to be compared.

Of course, the real language of the series can be found in its ipod-ready soundtrack, which contains a murderer's row of artists from the mid 2000's such as The Killers, Rilo Kiley, The Postal Service, Modest Mouse, The White Stripes, The Strokes, Spoon, Coldplay, The Hives, Outkast, Jet and Kelly Clarkson. And that's not even including the many stripped-down covers of songs from the era punctuating key moments, with Schwartz and music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas deserving credit for wisely picking their spots in not making any of it feel intrusive or distracting.

Early on, it's given away that we're careening toward a tragic death, and even those unfamiliar with the novel will quickly deduce whose, as we're all but told in the opening minutes. The surprise comes in how it's handled, when all pretense of the fun and comradarie this series is built on prior to episode six is extinguished in a matter of minutes. Taking its place is grief, some mystery, and a closure of sorts for all involved.

Shows in all genres tend to go out of their way to avoid dwelling on the immediate aftermath of a character's death because it's an audience downer, requiring the writers, directors and actors to tonally readjust. The fear of doing that has become so great that showrunners have even pulled out time jumps and flashforwards to exclusively avoid depicting prolonged grief on screen. Looking For Alaska runs toward what other shows avoid by realizing that a major character loss can work as a natural extension to what came before, resulting in a deeper exploration of the remaining ones as they wrestle with its consequences.

Having gotten so much time with these characters as a unit and individually, when the death hits, it really lands, as a full two episodes are spent watching an entire school of students and faculty grieve in wildly different ways. And yet the show still manages to adjust course once more, with a finale that somehow not only provides big laughs, but a genuine sense of finality. There won't be another season because there's literally no more story left to tell, making a limited series template the ideal vehicle in adapting Green's novel. But what couldn't have been anticipated was just how much it would improve upon it.   

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