High Fidelity Is a Proper Modern Love Letter to a Gen X Rom-Com ClassicPhoto Courtesy of Hulu TV Reviews High Fidelity
There’s a moment in the pilot (“Top Five Heartbreaks”) of Hulu’s High Fidelity where Robin “Rob” Brooks (Zoe Kravitz, also an executive producer on the series), explains to the audience how most people think her Brooklyn-based record store Championship Vinyl is either a “relic” or simply a haven for hipsters. It’s an excellent point to be made in a story about a record store owner in 2020, one that couldn’t have really been made 20 years ago when the High Fidelity feature film came out, even when the film still acknowledged just how difficult it was to make a living off of a record store even then. At this point, it would be nigh impossible if not for the reboom of vinyl (and even audio cassettes now, to an extent), which is why it at least has to be addressed before the show goes on to spend a considerable amount of time inside its version of Championship Vinyl for the next nine episodes.
The other thing that seemingly needs to be addressed when discussing Hulu’s High Fidelity—a television adaptation of both the 1995 Nick Hornby novel and the blueprint-creating 2000 film starring John Cusack—is the fact that the music-loving, list-obsessed, romantic failure known as Rob Gordon in this story is a woman. An African-American, millennial, sexually fluid woman instead of a white, Gen Xer straight man. It’s that specific change that pretty much makes High Fidelity worth revisiting in a modern context, because not only does it open up the dating avenues and backstories a bit more—not only is one of Rob’s Top Five Heartbreaks in this version a woman,* there’s no story about her breaking up with someone because they wouldn’t let her pressure them into sex—it acknowledges in a way how much a character like Cusack’s Rob couldn’t work today in the same presentation. The movie captured a very specific space and time, where a character like Rob made sense as the “alternative” romantic comedy lead (despite being played by anything but, in the form of John Cusack); it is a time capsule that the series rightfully doesn’t try to open or replicate, or worse, replace.
* With this narrative choice, there’s a conversation to be had though about the choice to only show Rob interested in one woman at any point in the season, compared to all the men she’s interested in, hooked up with, or dated. It’s a choice that comes across more like an option just to check off the item of “Rob dating a girl” than of actual representation or making a statement about Rob’s sexuality.
In fact, the 2018 Vice article; ”‘High Fidelity’ Created a Hero for a Generation of Sociopathic ‘Nice Guys’” perfectly explained by a rehash of the film instead of a new take like this wouldn’t have worked. Addressing how much the movie even acknowledged that Cusack’s Rob was not someone to look up to, it added, “Rob Gordon was not a character to be admired. Rob Gordon was, in fact, a terrible human—a sociopathic womanizer, a stalker ex, and a shitty boyfriend.” Of course, because he was played by Cusack, he was much more sympathetic that Hornby had written him, and much more than the story was trying to paint him as, given his actions—even when he tried to make himself look better in his monologues to the audience.
Zoe Kravitz and John Cusack are about as different as two actors could possibly be, but they both share that magnetism that makes you want to follow them down this path, even though you know it won’t end well. Considering how much of High Fidelity—both the series and the movie—is just Rob monologuing to the audience, casting that role was easily the most integral decision made when it came right down to it. Asshole or not, Rob has to be a captivating enough storyteller—even when he or she isn’t even the greatest character—to make people stick around. That exists here just like it did 20 years ago, which is the most necessary part of the equation. In fact, with Hulu’s High Fidelity, it’s almost like a magic trick, as Kravitz is immensely likable as Rob, so much so that the show is able to lull the audience into a false sense of security about the inevitable fact that the character—by nature of the catalyst of the story in the first place—is, in fact, “an asshole,” just like the source material. We know from the very beginning though that she’s a pretentious whiskey drinker—on top of the pretentious music nerd component—who just can’t quit smoking.
The difference is, Kravitz’s Rob isn’t the cantankerous Gen Xer that Cusack’s Rob was, which is for the best, because while there was a perfect time and place for that version of the character in 2000, it reads a whole lot different in 2020. There’s a possibility an updated take on that attitude that could work for Kravitz’s Rob if this were a film remake, but over the span of 10 episodes and then potentially more, the key is to make people want to continue to watch this character. And, to root for her forming healthy attachments, which is where the added inclusion of Jake Lacy’s nice guy character Clyde comes in—as Jake Lacy is the go-to actor for playing nice guys in rom-coms without devolving into the pejorative Nice Guy territory that the original Rob Gordon actually existed in—as the obviously good option in a sea of less good and flat-out wrong options. Instead, while this Rob definitely is prone to fall into those moments of simply checking out from being engaged in humanity, she’s far from a curmudgeon set in her ways. Because, again, this is 2020, and while Rob’s style might suggest Gen Xer at times—and is often even taken directly from the wardrobe Cusack wore in the movie—that detached attitude would be nonexistent for someone like her, as much as people want to conflate being a Millennial with not caring about anything.
Because the vibe of Kravitz’s Rob is a whole lot different from Cusack’s Rob, it also allows for an aspect of the series that’s the perhaps truest objective improvement** over the movie: her friendship with her employees at Championship Vinyl, Cherise (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) and Simon (David Holmes). Unlike in the film, where it seems like Rob barely even likes Barry and Dick (who are the one-to-one comparisons to Cherise and Simon), here, the trio have a genuine friendship that immediately makes the world of the series fuller, even if it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. Series showrunners Veronica West and Sarah Kucserka previously wrote for Ugly Betty and Hart of Dixie, two female-led shows that understood both working with rom-com conventions (and subversions) and providing supporting characters with enough characterization and autonomy to make the world truly feel real and lived in. (Hart of Dixie was also, legitimately, the most underrated rom-com series of the past decade.) Those are the learned skills and strengths that they brought to their own series in High Fidelity, despite taking place in a more real, less bright and sunny world than those particular shows.
** More subjective, the series also improves upon the story of Rob and the rock star, funnily enough. “Funnily enough,” because in the movie, said rock star Marie DeSalle was played by Kravitz’s mother, Lisa Bonet. Here, Rob hooks up with a Scottish musician named Liam (Thomas Doherty), and the experience allows Rob to realize why the dream of dating a musician isn’t all she imagined it to be (no matter how many private jokes are in the liner notes).
Along with Kravitz—who is tasked with working the monologuing asshole protagonist component that is the Roy character—Randolph perhaps had the hardest character to work with, considering how memorably Jack Blackian Jack Black’s performance is in the movie. Obviously, Randolph is not just doing a Black impression—as interesting as that would be to see—making the over-the-top, flamboyant, tryhard record store employee character her own as Cherise. But the beauty of television is that a somewhat one-note character like Barry was—until that final performance reveal—can be fleshed out more, which is an opportunity the series takes with the Cherise character. The one thing that clearly fueled the Barry character, his insecurity, is able to be explored more with Cherise over the course of the series’ 10 episodes. That’s also trye of Cherise’s relationship with Rob, as their relationship isn’t the best friend relationship that Rob and Simon has. As for Simon, he’s also a character who gets more of a story than Todd Louiso’s Dick did. In the film, Dick got a very small subplot love story with a character played by Sara Gilbert, whereas the series ends up giving Simon his own moment of being the lead in his own reboot of High Fidelity (the episode “Simon’s Top 5”), making clear to everyone that he’s not just the gay BFF in the rom-com.
As Rob goes down memory lane through her past failed relationships, it is all, of course, in service to the #5 person on her list, Russell “Mac” McCormack (Kingsley Ben-Adir), the one who breaks up with her to kick off the series. In terms of switching the story up for this particular version, there is a lot of work done for this part of the story. While the original story and movie take place in a relatively condensed amount of time, after the break-up, a year has passed between the moment of the break-up and where we find Rob in her life now. That year hasn’t done anything to make her feel better, as this Rob is even more of a hopeless romantic who spends way too much time getting over a failed relationship before diving into another doomed relationship. But that year has provided Mac with the time to get into a new, serious relationship—one that isn’t quite the joke that the rebound relationship from the book and movie is, which makes it an even harder pill for Rob to swallow. That aspect speaks again to the major difference between the source materials and this version: That cynical, Gen Xer spirit just isn’t here, and that informs so much of what is different about the projects and about the time in which they exist. And it also makes it so Rob actually has to think, truly think, about the consequences of her actions and grow, as hard as they very much is for her.
High Fidelity the series is familiar enough to its source material that one will still recognize the story, yet it’s enough of its own thing that it’s able to stand on its own. In the case of the latter, one of my own early questions about the series, despite enjoying it, was: Would the show be able to prove that it can exist past this first season? Past what is considered the “known” (based on the novel and movie’s story)? By the time the season finale (“Once More, For Old Time’s Sake”) rolls along, that question is answered, and it’s clear that West and Kucserka put in the thought to figure out where they could possibly go once the series finally got past the established and known parts of the story.
Comparing High Fidelity to another recent adaptation of a beloved film from Hulu, the (very American, for some reason) Four Weddings and a Funeral miniseries was an example of the worst-case scenario of what High Fidelity could be: Lacking the charm and ethos of the original property, all in the name of making a modern version. High Fidelity runs on a lot of charm—as the film did, albeit in a different form—and a major, tangible appreciation for its source material, while still functioning as its own thing, with its own killer soundtrack. (Just to assuage any fear: Stevie Wonder’s “I Believe (When I Fall in Love)” still remains part of the show.) It also gets to do something the movie didn’t get a chance to, when it dedicates an episode (“Uptown”) to the part of the Hornby book where a woman (played by the always on Parker Posey) attempts to sell her soon-to-be-ex-husband’s rare record collection to Rob preposterously cheap. (Jeffrey Nordling, the ex, is essentially playing what the male Rob type would be like now).
Most importantly, High Fidelity is enjoyable to watch, which makes the fact that Hulu’s releasing it all on Valentine’s Day an especially brilliant choice. The series is a love letter to its source material, to the music that plays throughout, to New York City (with a gentrification undercurrent within the season), and even to the rom-com genre.
High Fidelity premieres Friday, February 14th on Hulu. [This review initially published on February 3, 2020]
Despite her mother’s wishes, LaToya Ferguson is a writer living in Los Angeles. If you want to talk The WB’s image campaigns circa 1999-2003, LaToya’s your girl. Her writing has been featured in The A.V. Club, IndieWire, and Entertainment Weekly, among other publications. You can find her tweets about TV shows, movies, and music you completely forgot about @lafergs;.
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