Calum Henderson on Looking For Alaska (Neon)
Representation matters, which unfortunately for me means I'll always be drawn to any TV show in which the main character is a moody and pretentious teenager. Nothing quite like seeing yourself reflected back at you, with your most insufferable traits magnified by a thousand, to reassure you that maybe you weren't that bad after all.
Watching things like Looking For Alaska, I can breathe a sigh of relief. I could definitely have been worse. I could have been a character in a John Green novel.
The height of my early-2000s teenage pretension was probably the school holidays I spent penning a series of wordy and aggressive emails to Juice TV, berating them for not playing enough "real music" (i.e. Radiohead). This was bad, I admit, but it wouldn't even get me supporting character status in a John Green book, where everybody must have at least one major, embarrassing affectation. For Miles in Looking For Alaska, this is memorising and incessantly spouting famous people's last words.
Funny how this sort of thing goes down such a treat in book form but as soon as you see it on the screen it suddenly becomes painfully lame. Maybe this is why an adaptation of Green's debut novel, published in 2005, took so long to eventuate. A movie version, with Josh Schwartz (creator of moody teen classic The OC) as director, has been in the works since the book came out but never made it off the ground.
Nearly 15 years later, Schwartz (who went on to make Gossip Girl instead) has returned to direct these eight episodes for Hulu. The result is a series that is probably infinitely better than the movie ever would have been but which also feels distinctly of an era – a throwback to a time nobody is ready to be nostalgic for just yet.
The 2005-ness is palpable and not just because nobody has a smartphone. There's one scene in which Miles performatively reads a James Joyce novel while his parents watch Fear Factor, and the first five minutes features songs by Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and The Killers. If this actually did come out in 2005, it would have blown Garden State out of the water.
Miles escapes the constraints of his Floridian suburban prison to seek the meaning of life at a boarding school in Georgia (where Jonah from Veep is the headmaster), where he quickly finds "his people" – the equally angst-filled the Colonel and Takumi – and falls head over heels in love with the enigmatic, beautiful, Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype Alaska.
"You've got 10 seconds to surprise me before I write you off as ordinary," she says edgily the first time they meet. Miles replies: "I know a lot of people's last words." It's so bad, I love it.
The longer series format does a more successful job than the movies (The Fault In Our Stars, Paper Towns) of approximating the feel of reading a John Green book – for better, or maybe, for worse.