A teenager, disillusioned and dissatisfied with his life at a public high school in southern Florida, decides to spend the rest of his high school career at a boarding school in Alabama. Obsessed with the last words of famous people, he is particularly inspired by those of François Rabelais: “I go to seek a Great Perhaps.” He hopes, it seems, to find adventure and bring meaning to his life. This is the story of Miles Halter (Charlie Plummer), the skinny and starry-eyed protagonist of Hulu’s new eight-episode miniseries, “Looking for Alaska.” This could, however, also be the story of John Green, YouTuber extraordinaire, author of the book from which the miniseries was adapted, and leader of the “Nerdfighters,” which informs the main theme of the show.
Much like the film adaptations of Green’s other books (“The Fault in Our Stars” and “Paper Towns”), “Looking for Alaska” remains fairly faithful to the source material — more “Harry Potter” than “Avatar: The Last Airbender.” The series follows Miles as he adjusts to life at Culver Creek Academy. Along the way, he meets Chip “the Colonel” Martin (Denny Love), Takumi (Jay Lee), and the titular Alaska Young (Kristine Froseth) — the pretty girl-next-door whose room is decorated with string lights and shelves of books she’s never read and who angstily proclaims things like, “Life’s about disappointing those who are in charge of us.” It takes about 10 seconds for Miles to fall in love with her. The gang spends their days drinking cheap alcohol, smoking cigarettes, and playing pranks on the “Weekday Warriors,” a group of “rich assholes who leave every weekend for their air-conditioned Birmingham mansions,” and for whom hair care and playing lacrosse are defining personality traits.
The show manages to cram a lot into eight episodes. It’s a sort of bildungsroman: Miles receives (and, in a particularly funny scene, learns how to give) his first blowjob, takes a transformative world religions class found only in fictional high schools, and does eventually find the “Great Perhaps” he seeks. It deals, quite seriously, with grief: A major death about three-quarters of the way through the show rattles the school, and the aftermath manages to balance the serious impact with high school TV show levity in a way that not many teen dramas pull off successfully. There are hints of a commentary on income inequality and privilege. “This place doesn’t just belong to the Longwells and Kevins. This is Chip’s school too,” Alaska proclaims in defense of Chip, whose reliance on the school as the only way out of poverty is made fun of by the Weekday Warriors (whose admission to Duke is made possible by their parents’ money and connections).
What the show is really about, however, is the same thing that “Freaks and Geeks,” “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” as well as the entirety of the John Green canon are all about — nerds. There’s a sort of war that persists through the show, in a more literal sense than in most teen dramas, between the gang of nerds — outsiders, rebels, whatever you want to call them — and the Weekday Warriors (read: preppy jocks). Miles gets kidnapped and thrown into a lake. Kevin and Longwell get laxatives mixed into their protein shakes (which makes for a particularly messy, but hilarious, bathroom scene). Miles, at one point, declares, “I could have been a part of this Weekend Warrior life. I said no,” with a heroic defiance more befitting of George Washington or Han Solo than a high school junior. At Culver Creek Academy, the culture war becomes an actual, physical war — a metaphor with John Green’s name written all over it.
The show sounds like how John Green writes — that is, with a sort of faux-intellectualism that is usually not how people talk, especially not 16-years-olds. “Extricate this claw from my boob,” Alaska says after receiving a self-described “much-too-firm two-to-three second honk,” a scripted exchange that probably seemed very witty on paper, but, like much of the dialogue in the show, comes off as exactly that — scripted (and, frankly, often annoying). There’s also a shallowness to the whole more-intellectual-than-thou mentality that oozes from the protagonists. A high school junior can only be so worldly before it becomes unconvincing. “You have ten seconds to say something interesting before I write you off as ordinary,” Chip says upon meeting Miles: One has to wonder how much shorter the show would have been if Chip hadn’t found famous last words interesting enough for his elite intellectual standards.
That being said, it’s still a fun show. You don’t watch a teen drama for an accurate depiction of the mundane life of an average high schooler; you watch it to see the underdogs win, to see the nerds pool their cunning and resourcefulness to prank the shit out of the jocks (literally), to see high school how it feels in the moment, not how it actually is. When the gang dances to indie soft pop in their smoking hideout, when they develop intricate contingency plans for the next prank, when they sit in a barn drinking Strawberry Hill wine and playing best day/worst day, you could be cynical. You could question why they care so much about pranks and whether or not they’ve had enough days to really have a best or worst one and whether or not they over-glorify smoking (there might be a point to this last one, actually), or you could just take it for what it is — high schoolers being high schoolers. “Looking for Alaska,” makes it easy to suspend your disbelief and see yourself in the minds of these 16-year-olds, and for that, it will make John Green — and his army of Nerdfighters, myself included — quite proud.
—Staff writer Kalos K. Chu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.