Well, so much for endeavor to select a palate cleanser television miniseries after watching a series of dark, bleak ones I’ve reviewed on this blog the last few weeks. I thought picking a John Green adaptation teen drama would be … lighter. Not so much for the 2019 Hulu original miniseries Looking for Alaska based on Green’s first novel in 2005.
The main thrust of the show is that Miles “Pudge” Halter (played by Charlie Plummer) begins attending a boarding school, Culver Creek Academy, where he wants to gain a deeper understanding of life. Oh, and he also has this quirky obsession with the final words of famous people. I particularly enjoyed the French poet Francois Rabelais, who, when he was dying, his last words were, “I go to seek a great perhaps.” That is, the hope of an afterlife.
Rabelais’ final words are essentially the running theme of the eight-episode miniseries. Halter, along with friends he meets along the way, Chip “The Colonel” Martin (played by Denny Love), Takumi (played by Jay Lee) and his love interest Alaska Young (played by Kristine Froseth), are searching for what the “great perhaps” means. Or more precisely, to discover the “great perhaps” while still living.
More than foreshadowing, the first scene we see is a terrible car crash. The moment I saw that, I figured Alaska was going to die. From that moment, we get a countdown of the days “before” that crash. The last two episodes are the “after” of the crash where, yes, Alaska does die in a drunken crash, although we don’t know if it was intentional or an accident.
I know these kids are, kids, but man, they are so brutal! Even to each other, they’re ostensible friends, but at times, treat each other awfully bad. The dialogue was hard to listen to at times. Also, they smoke a lot.
So, at Culver Creek, the “thing” is pranks. Throughout the show, we get escalating pranks between Pudge’s group of friends and those they deem the “Weekday Warriors.” That is, those who are rich kids from legacy families who go home on the weekends back to their rich families.
Folks. Pranks should be harmless in both that they are harmless to the person being pranked and harmless to the property of the person being pranked. When someone is legitimately harmed in either respect, that is an awful, not funny and not something to let go prank.
The Weekday Warriors grab Pudge from his room, wrap him in plastic wrap from neck to toe and toss him in the water. That’s not a prank. That’s attempted murder. I still don’t understand how he survived. Later, Colonel and Alaska get back at the Weekday Warriors by sending poop-themed admission letters to Duke University through their computers. Thereafter, Colonel is threatened by The Eagle (played by Timothy Simons of brilliant Veep fame), the headmaster, with expulsion for the prank after the Weekday Warriors’ parents apply ample pressure.
WHY DIDN’T THEY BRING UP THE ATTEMPTED MURDER?! All Colonel has to say, and Pudge back up, is that the Weekday Warriors tried to kill him and those parents will shut up.
Did I mention these kids are awful? Even Pudge, our protagonist, is such a jerk to one of the genuinely nice people in this show, Lara (played by Sofia Vassilieva). Alaska, who Pudge is actually falling in love with, sets Pudge up with Lara. Lara is sweet and kind, despite Pudge not so clandestinely pining for Alaska. After getting a concussion, Pudge pukes all over Lara and she still is kind to him and takes him to the hospital! Even after he’s a total jerk to her, she takes him back for the winter dance and then he ditches her again and technically cheats on her with Alaska. And even then, she comes back to be with him during his time of grief, which he ignores. Sorry, Pudge sucks.
And Colonel and Takumi are brutal. When it’s learned that the escalating prank war started because Alaska “ratted” on one of her best friends engaging in drugs, alcohol and sex with her boyfriend, Colonel and Takumi turn on Alaska. That annoyed me. I get that the biggest violation of Culver Creek Academy norms is to “rat” to the Eagle, but gah. They were so mean to Alaska.
Also, Pudge is wrong, by the way. Alaska’s last words to him were not “to be continued.” That was when she got up to go answer the phone. She returns hysterically after realizing she almost forgot the two-year anniversary of her mother’s death (something that I also predicted and took another episode for the boys to figure it out). Before she leaves to get behind the wheel, she tells Pudge that she’s “invincible.” Then she dies.
The other great, genuine character in the series is Dr. Hyde (played by Ron Cephas Jones), the religions teacher. Not only does he provide some more intellectual curiosity and Big Questions to the show, primarily in getting the students to answer the question of what our purpose is on this earth and how the major religions deal with it, but by being there during the low moments for Alaska and later the Colonel.
Prior to dying, Alaska submits her paper to Dr. Hyde, which has the question along the lines of, “How will I ever get out of this labyrinth of suffering?”
Dr. Hyde echoes the Buddhists, who believe that we suffer because we desire things that are almost hedonist in nature. But also, we resist the inevitability of suffering. We push against it rather than understanding and navigating it. Rather than realizing that all things, including ourselves, are impermanent and ever-changing.
For example, when Dr. Hyde comes to the Colonel’s house to help him, he helps him by allowing the Colonel to lean into his grief and his anger rather than trying to submerge them with an stony exterior. Accept the suffering. Only then can you emerge from it.
In fact, Love steals the show as the Colonel in that moment with Dr. Hyde, crying unabashedly in his grief over the loss of Alaska and crying to the Eagle about the same thing. That was simply great acting.
The point of Buddhism, too, is to be present. Not dwelling in the past or the future. Again, things are impermanent, so appreciate the “now” before it’s no longer here.
Of course, I dig all of these Big Questions and meditations. As I’ve ranted about though, some of the characters are just downright mean and that doesn’t always make for the most enjoyable viewing experience.
Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the fantastic soundtrack throughout, as it played a lot of songs relevant to the early 2000s, when the show takes place. In particular, if you’re using this song in your show, I like you:
In the end, Pudge sort of realizes the point of where the Buddha’s finger is pointing, so to speak, and accepts that life is worthwhile even if we never make it out of the labyrinth of suffering. That the “now” still matters. I was worried at first that the show was drifting too nihilistic, but Pudge’s essay for Dr. Hyde at the end is optimistic more than pessimistic and bleak.
If you’re looking for an intelligent coming-of-age, grief-laden, philosophy-minded teen drama, I highly recommend Looking for Alaska. It has a bit of everything, it’s not just not exactly light fare as I expected.