Tonally and structurally, Hulu’s new teen drama Looking For Alaska and that mainstay of teen television The O.C. have little in common. One is a more grounded coming-of-age drama, the other is a (very good) teen soap. One is an eight-episode limited series, the other ran for four seasons on Fox. One is set in the woods of Alabama, the other takes place on the sunny beaches of Southern California.
But these two projects—one set in 2005 but made in 2019, and the other set in 2003-2007 and made during that same time period—have some fascinating connections that can give the Looking For Alaska viewing experience a meta layer for anyone who was also a contemporary fan of that teen drama classic The O.C.
Both The O.C. and Looking For Alaska were created by Josh Schwartz (his producing partner, Stephanie Savage co-created the latter). Schwartz was showrunning The O.C. when he optioned the film rights for first-time author John Green‘s Looking For Alaska, and it’s not hard to understand why the manuscript might have piqued 2005 Schwartz’s interest: Both The O.C. and Looking For Alaska are stories about (teen white boy) outsiders coming into a tight-knit, privileged community.
Schwartz said that it was Green’s writing that initially drew him to the book all those years ago, and the ways in which it allowed him to connect to the characters of Looking For Alaska, which is told from protagonist Miles “Pudge” Halter’s point-of-view in the novel.
“Miles aka Pudge, was the guy I definitely identified with,” said Schwartz of that initial reading experience. “And I think that idea of everyone has had in Alaska who’s come into their life, whether it’s been the exact same, it’s played out in exactly the same way it did for Miles, but somebody who teaches you… let’s just say growth through pain.”
The book (and series) follow Miles as he begins his junior year at private boarding school Culver Creek Academy in rural Alabama. In the series, Miles is played by Charlie Plummer (Boardwalk Empire, All the Money in the World). Unlike the novel, the adaptation is more of an ensemble drama, giving just as much narrative space to Miles’ roommate Chip “The Colonel” Martin (Denny Love) and object of Miles’ affections Alaska Young (The Society‘s Kristine Froseth), both scholarship kids from working class backgrounds. Miles, Chip, and Alaska’s found family dynamic is the basis for the joy, humor, and heartbreak of the story.
“I also thought the book was just really, really funny,” said Schwartz, elaborating on what initially drew him to this world. “The relationships that all these kids had with each other. Their nicknames and their codewords and their smoking holes and their ambrosia. It was a whole world that, even though it was loosely inspired by John’s experience and obviously by his imagination, I felt like it had happened to me.”
Schwartz has evolved professionally since he first optioned the rights to Looking For Alaska 15 years ago. In 2010, Schwartz and Savage formed Fake Empire, a production company for the development of TV and feature films. Fake Empire has made series like Gossip Girl, Chuck, Hart of Dixie, The Carrie Diaries, Dynasty, Marvel’s Runaways, and now Looking For Alaska. (They are also behind new CW show Nancy Drew, and are developing a Gossip Girl sequel series for HBO Max.)
Speaking about the difference between making a show about 2005 in 2005 and making a show about 2005 now, Schwartz said: “The O.C. was very much of the time when we made it. It was very contemporary and all of the fashion and the music was of the moment. What the kids were talking about or dealing with… it was very deliberately a show designed to reflect the times that we were living in.”
Looking For Alaska, on the otherhand, says Schwartz, is not meant to reflect the interests or anxieties of 2005 specifically, even if it may have some of the aesthetics of 2005.
“We want to looking for Alaska to feel timeless,” said Schwartz. “So part of setting it in 2005 [was] because that’s when the book was first published. [For] the first generation of readers who read the book, that was the context that they were experiencing it. And the same for us. But [that setting] also allowed the show to have a certain timeless quality. It’s not an obvious period piece, but it’s the last moment before people got smartphones. There is an innocence and a timelessness to it.”
Fake Empire gets its name comes from a The National song that was featured in Season 2 of Chuck, a nod to how important indie music has been to their success and brand of the company. Looking For Alaska includes many songs that originally appeared on The O.C. or other Fake Empire shows. Savage and Schwartz have brought in frequent collaborator Music Supervisor Alexandra Patsavas (The O.C., Chuck, Gossip Girl) once again for Looking For Alaska.
“Selfishly, it allowed us to go back and pull out our old O.C. playlist,” said Schwartz of the influence of Alaska‘s 2005 setting on the show’s nostalgic soundtrack, “and revisit with old friends and listen to some of this music, use some of the music, but then also get these new covers from contemporary artists of those songs.”
Not all references are intentional or even objective: When Miles first sees Alaska in the Looking For Alaska pilot, it is through a car window, as he is driving by on his way to Culver Creek. The music swells and time seems to slow down, the rest of the world fading away for Miles, as the two characters see each other for the first time.
The moment is reminscent of a similar shot in The O.C. pilot, which sees Ryan making eye contact with Marissa through a car window to the dreamy strums of Joseph Arthur’s “Honey and the Moon” as Sandy drives him away. (When asked about this shot construction, Savage brings up Serena’s introduction in the Gossip Girl pilot, which sees Blake Lively staring forlornly out of the train window to Pete Bjorn’s “Young Folks” as she returns to NYC.)
“We like shows where people look out the window,” Schwartz jokes before adding more seriously: “When you’re a teenager, a lot of the ways you see the world is out the window, when somebody else is taking you somewhere.”
In addition to all of these meta moments, The O.C. gets a more explicit shout-out in Looking For Alaska. In Episode 6, Miles and Lara (Sofia Vassilieva) are watching the show on a laptop (they must have the DVD?). It’s a tangible connection between the worlds of these two shows: the show that defined—at least pop culturally—what it meant to be a teen in the mid-aughts and the show that is loosely using that setting to wonder what it means to be a teen coming-of-age now, when, perhaps, teenagers are asked to grow up sooner and faster.
While the moment may be an explicit The O.C. reference, it has its own meta element because cast members Froseth and Plummer were watching The O.C. while filming Looking For Alaska.
“Kristine Froseth is like, hardcore, the biggest fan of the original show,” said Schwartz. “I thought she was joking when we first started talking about it. She watched the show four times in a row, from beginning to end, and then she gave Charlie the show and so he started watching it and then they would come to set with questions. And then Kristine is like, ‘Charlie, we just have to watch up until the point where Marissa dies,’ and Charlie goes, ‘Marissa dies?’ She basically spoiled it for him.”
Schwartz said that inherent in these conversations was the curiosity from the young stars of Looking For Alaska about what it was like to be a teenager or adult during this just-past time period. (Froseth was born in 1996, and Plummer was born in 1999.)
“We were being asked a lot ‘What were the aughts like like?'” said Schwartz, “which also made us feel very old.” It’s an interesting question to ponder, though not one that Looking For Alaska spends a lot, if any, time on. This isn’t a series about then or maybe even now; it’s a story hoping to be about always, about the ways in which those first, unfathomable encounters with devastating loss and grief change us. How they always have and they always will.
All eight episodes of Looking For Alaska are now available on Hulu.