Looking for Alaska (BBC Three) is an eight-part adaptation of the much-loved first novel by John Green, the young adult fiction king, author of The Fault in our Stars. For various reasons, it has taken 14 years to bring it to the screen and, in many ways, you can tell. This heartfelt story of teenage love and loss is sweet and just a little old-fashioned; its mid-00s setting fixes it in a pre-smartphone age in which cigarettes and wine are just about the worst things an impossibly articulate teenager could get up to.
Miles, quickly given the nickname Pudge – ironically, because he is a string bean with a haircut – is a Rabelais-obsessed teenage boy who knows a lot of famous people’s last words. In search of a life worth living, he persuades his parents to let him move from Orlando to Culver Creek, a boarding school in Alabama, where he suspects his adventures may begin. In Florida, he is bookish and unpopular. At Culver Creek, which has the appeal of a summer camp and Jonah from Veep as the headmaster, he suspects he will find his people and reinvent himself.
Since this is based on a Green story, Miles’s reinvention finds its catalyst in a manic pixie dream girl of a young woman, the Alaska of the title, who drives fast and chuffs fags with determination. Channelling Kat from 10 Things I Hate About You, Alaska is a feminist who says things such as, “That kind of sexist bullshit is why we need to dismantle the patriarchy.”
She is also a little more damaged than the overwhelmed boys who are drawn to her can handle. We know from the rain-soaked, fatalistic opening scenes that this will not end well, and it is not too hard to guess the direction in which it is careering. Each episode ends with a statement of the number of days left to go before the imminent, unspecified bad thing happens, which gives it an ominous 13 Reasons Why flavour. Whether you roll your eyes at the prospect of another messed-up girl there to be rescued by the lead character may depend on whether you have seen enough iterations of that particular storyline.
That said, it has its charms. It is often dry and funny. Upon learning that Alaska is a third-wave feminist, Miles, who mostly reads biographies of dead men, is confused. “They have waves?” It has been adapted by Josh Schwartz, who created The OC, as if you couldn’t tell from the thumping indie soundtrack and the fondness for wordy, nerdy, wannabe-heroic teenage boys. The performances of the mostly young cast are excellent, not least because you can see their facial expressions beneath that sea of floppy fringes, an achievement that deserves an Emmy category all of its own. Charlie Plummer plays Miles with just enough guilelessness to avoid being irritating, and wears his 90s Leonardo DiCaprio heartthrob status lightly, while Kristen Froseth does a lot with the sometimes cartoonish characterisation of a teenage girl with the world on her shoulders. To play an enigma must be an infuriatingly difficult task, but she manages to contain the mystery just so.
However, it’s Denny Love as the Colonel who holds it all together (at least, until he has to really act his nicotine withdrawal). As a character, the Colonel has by far the most depth. He is caught up in a war between social groups and, as his name suggests, he is the architect of most of the conflict. The Weekday Warriors are the wealthy, obnoxious jocks who get to go home at the weekend, while the Colonel, Miles, Alaska and Takumi are the outcasts, mostly there on scholarships, who have to stay out of trouble to stay at the school, yet love drinking and smoking, which creates some friction. Much of the series is driven by the increasingly brutal prank-off between the two factions, including one gruesome conceit involving laxatives and clingfilm at a fancy cotillion ball. There is no need to elaborate.
In 2019, Looking for Alaska is a curious addition to the teen TV canon, oddly wholesome and fixed in its 2005 setting. To watch it after HBO’s Euphoria, for example, is like nibbling at a salad after gorging on an all-you-can-eat buffet. And 13 Reasons Why, which circles some of the same topics, is nastier and harder. Looking for Alaska has heart and soul, and has more in common with its forebears than its contemporaries. This is Dawson’s Creek with regular alcohol; The OC in Alabama. For people who grew up on those shows, the nostalgia element is strong. Whether it can win over a new, young audience remains to be seen.