Review | ‘High Fidelity’ Gets New Life

Nick Hornby’s Novel Plays Surprisingly Well as Hulu Series

'High Fidelity' | Credit: Courtesy

Sometimes, out of the wilds of the hunt for IP, the right creative team can scavenge something nearly original. Nick Hornby’s 1995 novel, High Fidelity, about a record-store owner whose collector’s impulse extends beyond his albums to an ever-growing inventory of personal heartbreaks, already received the cinematic treatment in 2000, with John Cusack in the role of Rob Fleming, the story’s central forlorn romantic. Reintroducing Hornby’s vinylphile on this side of the digital and streaming divide is such an unlikely and surprising choice that it actually works.

The film updated the book’s location from London to Chicago. Now, the Hulu show has updated that location once again, to Brooklyn. Rob is no longer short for Robert, but for Robyn, and this Rob is played by Zoë Kravitz. For those who only know Kravitz from her one-dimensionally aloof character on the first season of Big Little Lies or from her one-dimensionally distraught character on the second season of Big Little Lies, the many shades of Zoë are a joy to discover. In trendy Fleabag fashion, Rob spends a generous amount of time on the near side of the fourth wall, clueing the viewers in to her emotional landscape. Like her High Fidelity forebears, her preferred method of emoting is the top five list, and counting down her top five breakups provides the embryonic structure for the series, just as it did for the book and the film before it.

Some vestiges from the original age better than others, though. Even in 2020, Rob is still adamant about the dos and do-nots of curating the perfect playlist, and she spends an entire episode early in the season espousing her philosophy. As a former mixtape, then mix-CD, aficionado myself, this seems a labor of love best left to the twenty-aughts. With a universally accessible music library through Spotify and the lack of the 80-minute time limit, the modern playlist is a paradigm without contours, endless and depersonalized, now more the province of paid tastemakers than fervent connoisseurs. Is Rob really that out of step with the times, or is she just the victim of reboot anxiety, blurred between a callback and a fresh look?

The show is at its strongest and most nimble when it breaks from the trodden terrain of its IP paternity, and Kravitz is able to chart her own way through the boroughs of N.Y.C. In the latter half of the season, references to the earlier iterations of the material function more as Easter eggs (like the needle drop of The Beta Band’s “Dry the Rain” in episode seven) than as structural dictates, and the show takes on a life of its own.

As a disarmingly beautiful misfit with eclectic and encyclopedic tastes, Kravitz’s Rob is both at home and uncomfortable in nearly any given situation, allowing her to move through the city with ease while maintaining a critical distance from whatever niche subculture she finds herself in. Whether it be at a staged party for Instagram influencers promoting Japanese sake-in-a-can or in the Manhattan penthouse of an avant-garde artist played by a deliriously jaded and free-spirited Parker Posey, Rob is the perfect vehicle for the show’s audience to move through the strange, ironic world of contemporary urban living.

A cast of eminently likeable costars joins her on the ride. David H. Holmes and Da’Vine Joy Randolph play Rob’s coworkers at the record store, Simon and Cherise. More than sidekicks to Rob, Simon and Cherise are fully lived-in characters ready to burst through the seams of the narrative stitched around Rob’s self-indulgent relationship woes. Episode eight teases the possibilities of a more diffuse ensemble structure for the show, following Simon through his day and into his own back catalogue of misbegotten romances. Cherise, an aspiring musician who often balances the somber cool of the show with feisty pathos, has yet to receive the POV treatment, but the writers have primed the audience for a more realized arc for her character next season. 

And, that’s where the true potential for this show lies: next season. After wringing the source material dry, this High Fidelity reboot is ready for its own story and way of telling it. The world is built; the cast is in place. It’s time to set them free and see what they can make of it on their own.

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