2019 Favorites: October — Looking For Alaska
After years of waiting for a Looking For Alaska adaptation, Hulu delivered on a show that kept the spirit of the story throughout the 8-episode limited series.
In a venture that is equal parts keeping track of some of the favorite things that happen in 2019 and also stretching my writing muscles to think about things other than sports (and more specifically), I’m going to post about my favorite things I come by each month. That includes anything from a movie to a tweet to a great meal. Here’s to enjoying, and remembering, the best parts of the year.
January: Maggie Rogers’ Heard It In A Past Life
February: Desus & Mero Return On Showtime
March: Sabrina Carpenter Concert @ House of Blues
April: Game of Thrones “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms”
May: Florence + the Machine Concert @ T-Mobile Arena
July: Ashlyn Harris’ World Cup Instagram story
August: The Farewell
September: A Fortune For Your Disaster
Favorite of the Month: Looking For Alaska (TV Show)
The big question of Looking for Alaska arrives about halfway through John Green’s debut novel. It comes when the main character, Miles Halter, is talking to the ever-mysterious Alaska Young about his obsession with famous last words. Alaska points to a quote in The General in His Labyrinth, a fictionalized account of Venezuelan political leader Simon Bolivar’s final months by Gabriel Garcia Marquez:
“Damn it … How will I ever get out of this labyrinth?”
At this point of the story, Miles is only a few days into his time at Culver Creek, a boarding school in Alabama based on Green’s own private high school experience. Miles chose to leave his hometown in Orlando to “seek a Great Perhaps,” based on François Rabelais’ last words. And when Alaska brings this quote to him, he asks the obvious: What’s the labyrinth?
Maybe it’s pain. Maybe it’s life, as a whole. It’s intentionally unclear, and the novel explores different labyrinths and different ways out amidst hijinks and tragedies that befall the characters.
In a way, Looking For Alaska’s adaptation lived in its own labyrinth. Paramount Pictures acquired the rights to the novel in 2005, and a screenplay from The O.C. creator Josh Schwarts was tabbed to write and direct it. That project was shelved due to lack of interest from the studio, but when Green reached mainstream success with The Fault in Our Stars, interest drummed up once again. While TFiOS and Paper Towns were adapted into movies, Alaska once again fell through. Finally, however, in May 2018, Hulu announced that it would adapt the story into an 8-episode limited series, with Schwartz returning as executive producer and showrunner alongside Stephanie Savage.
Soon, the cast came together, and, thanks to a few of John Green’s videos on his Vlogbrothers channel, it became more and more real as the premiere date approached. All that was left was the actual watching of the show.
Like any form of IP that makes its way to some type of screen, the nerves that accompany the viewing experience are equal parts worry and anticipation. The show takes a few liberties with the timing of certain aspects of the plot and chooses to dive much deeper into its characters without the Miles-led narration from which the book is told. The latter choice only adds more life to the limited series, and in eight episodes, the world built feels remarkably lived-in. It only takes a few episodes before the friend group at the center plays off one another like they’ve known each other for years, a testament to the chemistry between the cast members.
Denny Love, who plays Miles’ roommate Chip, aka The Colonel, is particularly striking, and his character embodies a lot of the best aspects of the show. That’s not to say the other elements and characters in the show don’t get those moments to explore the different themes but rather that he is the vehicle in which the emotional center of the story feels most at the surface. For most of the show, The Colonel sets the tone and the rules at Culver Creek. He makes the plans, draws clear lines where his loyalties lie and detests anyone who snitches on a fellow student.
When the central tragedy of the show happens, it turns the show from a sometimes-deep look at high schoolers into a thoughtful gaze into all of the emotions that accompany grieving someone with whom you had so many loose ends. For The Colonel, his grief leads him to disavowing the Christian-upbringing to his mother, who then invites Dr. Hyde — the school’s religion teacher played by Ron Cephas Jones — to their home. At first, Chip is annoyed and distant when Dr. Hyde asks about his crisis of faith, to which Chip replies aptly, “No crisis, no faith.” Slowly, however, as Dr. Hyde keeps the emotional door open to his student, Chip begins to break and lets out a scream that is anger, confusion, and deep sadness at once.
Nothing in the 2-minute exchange is all that deftly written. In fact, it’s pretty straight-up as far as the lines go, but the raw life the actors inject into the scene is a encapsulates why the emotional dives in the show are effective. The performances are for the most part allowed the breathe other than a few spots where direct lines from the book aren’t as easy to deliver with the same ease. Stretching Green’s story over the course of eight or so hours allows for the time spent with the relationships of the show to pay off throughout the final couple of episodes. I’ll take this sentence to give added praise to Kristine Froseth as Alaska, Charlie Plummer as Miles, and Jay Lee as Takumi. While they all play their parts with ease, the show really sings when the group is bouncing off one another cracking jokes, brainstorming pranks and just playing in the general sandbox of the relationship.
The show has the freedom to investigate each characters’ motivations, my favorite of which being Dr. Hyde. In the book, Hyde is little more than a bit-character who helps usher in some of the bigger themes, but in the show, he’s given a lot more work to do, which adds a certain level of intellectual maturity to what otherwise might feel like a bunch of overly philosophical bunch of high school students.
Frankly, to compare Looking for Alaska to other pair of Green-novel adaptations is unfair because Alaska had more room to work, but it is plain to say this is the one that left me most satisfied as a fan of his. Nothing about the show felt rushed, and some of the trickier themes — religion, grief, friendship among them — are allowed to live in the correct amount of nuance instead of getting boxed into a neat place inside of a two-hour high school movie. Looking for Alaska finally found its way out of the labyrinth, and what came out was a deeply affecting show that is simultaneously fulfilling for fans of the novel and new to the story.
Stir fried prawns @ Chin Chin (Melbourne, Australia)
Almost the moment I touched down in Melbourne, my coworkers started raving about the coffee — more on that in a second — and some Thai restaurant called Chin Chin. After a few days, I finally made the trek with my boss and realized quickly that they were right. Everything I ate here seemed like the kitchen had learned a secret to making the best possible version of each dish. I could’ve eaten an endless amount of the stir fried prawns and egg noodles though. The noodles were wonderfully chewy, and the hellfire chili oil that came on the side was the right amount of hot without taking away any of the flavor from the rest of the dish. I want to eat anything that Chin Chin puts on a plate.
Dukes Coffee Roasters (Melbourne, Australia)
I was surprised to learn about Melbourne’s legendary coffee culture, but within my first hour or so in the city, I found out the reputation is well substantiated. Every shot of espresso was full of flavor no matter what kind of storefront put the flat white in my hand. Dukes Coffee Roasters stood out for me because of the vibe emanating from its shop. I asked the barista for something other than a flat white, and she suggested a “Magic,” a drink unique to Melbourne. A Magic is steamed milk poured over a double ristretto — meaning that it’s the first half of a shot of coffee only and supposedly purer — and had an overall darker, bolder taste than the many flat whites I drank.
More importantly, the coffeeshop was a place you could lose hours doing things you actually want to do. Several signs announce a photo-free policy, and the lack of wifi and outlets lent itself nicely to diving into a book I’d recently bought. I settled into the nook near the large window at the front of the store, and I parked there for the better part of a couple hours alternating between reading and having a couple conversations with locals. It is one of the more quaint memories I took from Melbourne, and it is one I cherish.
Twelve Apostles (Victoria, Australia)
Maybe renting a car and taking a 5-hour road trip by myself in a country where they’re on the other side of the road wasn’t the most relaxing way to spend my extra time in Melbourne, but my god, the Great Ocean Road is worth all that stress. While it felt like the breathtaking views couldn’t end, the Twelve Apostles in Port Campbell National Park seems like the crown jewel of the oceanside road. Sitting about four to five hours west of Melbourne, the Twelve Apostles is a collection of limestone stacks sticking out from the ocean. Inland, cliffs stand at attention and the whole scene makes for one of the more epic things I’ve had the privilege of seeing. I caught the view with just about 40 minutes left of daylight, and it was truly breathtaking. The fact that it capped a long, winding, sometimes scary drive made it all the sweeter.
(Also, there’s various viewpoints around Twelve Apostles, and my favorite was probably Loch Ard Gorge. I went in the morning and had the entire cove to myself. It was serene.)
G.O.R.G.E. Chocolates (Victoria, Australia)
Drive a few miles inland from Port Campbell National Park and you find yourself among rolling hills with livestock grazing on endless grassfields on either side of you. In the midst of this is G.O.R.G.E. Chocolates, which a few locals recommended to me as I drove back to Melbourne. Chocolate is always good, but the hot chocolate is particularly wonderful. The circumstances were just right, too. I’d spent the morning exploring the beautiful cliffs in Port Campbell, which were beautiful save for the high winds and chilly rain drizzling down. Nothing warms the soul quite like hot chocolate, and that’s exactly what I got here. There’s options ranging from dark-mint to white chocolate, but I went with the classic milk chocolate, and I’m not sure if I’ve had many better cups than that.
Succession (Season 1)
I’m so bad at keeping up with Television, but I finally gave in and watched Succession. Like I’d seen most people say, it took a few episodes for the show to find its stride, but once it hit, the viewing experience felt akin to a runner’s high. The sometimes hectic cinematography reminded me of Friday Night Lights, and the interpersonal dynamic and power struggle within the central family made for a wonderfully chaotic drama. I need to start season two already.
Every Slice of Pizza I Had in New York City
I get it now. To have a cheap, dependable comfort never more than a few minutes away is true bliss. I felt like any option was the right one, though I did particularly love Joe’s Pizza because 1) it was stupid good and 2) who doesn’t love a good Spider-Man reference? While my body might’ve suffered from the amount of pizza I ate during my week in New York, my heart was happy, and when it comes to a slice, that’s all that really matters.
Adobada taco @ Los Tacos №1 (New York, New York)
Partially because I grew up in the southwest and went to college in Arizona, but I was extremely skeptical of the idea of great tacos in New York City. I was extremely wrong! Right in the middle of the kitchen at Los Tacos №1 spins a spit where the meat is sliced off for adobada tacos. They make their own corn and flour tortillas here, so you really can’t go wrong, and whichever you opt for adds their own life to the delicious filling of your choice. I had a part of carne asada and adobada tacos each. They were some of the best I’ve ever had, and I left the place happy and stuffed.