The original High Fidelity film is a gem of Gen X sensibilities; horrid costuming, cynical characters, and heterosexual schadenfreude, a romantic comedy that ends with not a bang, but a shrug and a misunderstanding. Don’t get me wrong; it is a great film, featuring a great soundtrack, a wonderfully acerbic lead performance from John Cusack (and some underrated work from Jack Black, in a thankless role), and some hilariously dated gender politics (also, it has Tim Robbins in a ponytail). But it is a crystallization of a certain, nigh forgotten era: one where record store owners could successfully exist as middle-class people, enjoying life in modern urbana (in the 2000 film adaptation’s case, Chicago), and one where white, hetero dudes’s flaws were seen as unique, often lovable qualities.
Despite a stunning lead performance from Zoe Kravitz, and a few smart updates to the source material, High Fidelity relies too heavily on its own nostalgia to ever find its own cadence in the present.
Hulu’s High Fidelity, which premieres February 14th on Hulu, is an attempt to update Nicholas Hornby’s 1995 novel for a new generation – and unfortunately, is a disappointing byproduct of the Adapt Everything era we now live in. Despite a stunning lead performance from Zoe Kravitz (daughter of Lisa Bonet, a supporting actress in the original film) and a few smart updates to the source material, High Fidelity relies too heavily on its own nostalgia to ever find its own cadence in the present.
The framework is the same; record store owner Rob (now short for Robin) lives in a big city (Brooklyn) lives a “modern” life of dating, fraught with messy breakups and diatribes about common dating situations. Like the film, the series begins with Rob walking the audience through her five most important break-ups, as she tries to process the most recent, painful break up she experienced (her fiancee Mack left her, and moved to London); and from there, High Fidelity goes about painfully recreating every single major plot point and iconic dialogue line of the original, often not even changing the context of these conversations and moments from either the book, or its original film adaptation.
There are modern wrinkles thrown in, of course: one of Rob’s exes is a woman (*gasp*), and another turns out to be Simon, one of her employees (and, as of the end of their relationship, an out gay man) – beyond that, the beats of her life are exactly the same as her previous incarnations (her apartment even looks almost exactly the same as Cusack’s Rob), the first of many times High Fidelity fails to capitalize on its opportunity to expand and shape the iconic story for a new generation. There are a few other major structural changes (like Jack Black’s character being replaced by Da’Vine Joy Randolph, which takes a long time to harness her energy), but for the most part, High Fidelity exists solely in the shadow of its predecessors, which severely limits what the series is capable of achieving emotionally.
It’s not quite Gus Van Sant’s Psycho, of course – Kravitz’s Rob is the prime reason for that, a stunning performance that comes off almost as effortless. Fans of Big Little Lies are already aware of her talent, and High Fidelity is an absolute showcase for her versatility; though her fourth-wall breaking monologues don’t play quite as well in a post-Fleabag world, Kravitz’s layered, subtle embodiment of Rob’s selfishness and complicated sense of self-worth gives depth to the entire affair, shaping the perfunctorily adapted material into something truly moving, in the series’ best moments.
Her mastery makes for a frustrating watch; even more vexing are the show’s final three episodes, easily the strongest of the run. All of a sudden, High Fidelity begins expanding on the vision of the original text, and starts to feel something more like a television series, rather than the overly engineered, slavishly devoted first few episodes: an episode that focuses on Simon’s loneliness, along with one taking place on Rob’s disastrous 30th birthday, help expand on the abundantly familiar themes High Fidelity ingrains into its hook up stories and break up dramas (a strong supporting performance from Jake Levy, as a guy Rob strings along for most of the season, is also a welcome expansion).
But those attempts to shed its inspirations are inconsistent, at best: most of the time, High Fidelity only flirts with finding its own identity – and when it finally does, it tries to attempt a new ending that doesn’t quite land, as one hopes it would. Most of that comes from its willingness to back away from some of Rob’s most unapologetic toxic qualities – but in doing so, it softens Rob’s character a bit, into something a bit more unassuming, a bit more forgivable… which in turn, kind of makes some of its slavish adherence to the beat-by-beat moments of the novel more dissonant than probably intended.
Narratively, the ninth-inning shift just leads to a bunch of loose threads, ones the finale is wholly uninterested in tying up – which, when it comes to characters like Simon and Cherise, is almost infuriating. There are times when High Fidelity feels like it could be something more, a true “reimagining” of Hornby’s tale of mid-90’s London music fandom – but those are pretty much all contained in the final two episodes, save for an extended Parker Posey cameo in episode five (which, along with episode nine, are easily the strongest in the bunch).
It all adds up to a major missed opportunity: if High Fidelity wanted to feel like a modern interpretation, it needs to feel more like it is actually set in modern times. There’s absolutely no mention of dating apps, nor are there any explorations of how algorithms have changed both dating and music collection; without explorations like that, High Fidelity feels like it takes place in a time capsule, a dream state where struggling record store owners can comfortably afford rent in Crown Heights and a normal social life, without any financial implications.
(There is one notable attempt to exist in 2020: a lame condemnation of Instagram culture in the background of two different scenes. It’s not good.)
There’s a lot of unrealized potential in High Fidelity; and even with that, it’s still a pretty watchable series – and at 10 half-hour episodes, it is a pretty breezy series to take in. For those who haven’t read the book or seen the film, it may even be lead to an extraordinary experience; there is a lot of truth in High Fidelity‘s philosophy on love, patience, and self-acceptance, truth that is revealed no matter how unrealistic the setting, or unimaginative the various dramas that play out within it.
But outside of Kravitz’s stellar lead performance (and a few key narrative choices made with her Rob’s third-act arc), there isn’t a whole lot new to offer, save for the obvious updates to soundtrack, cast, and cultural references. Beyond that, High Fidelity the equivalent of a greatest hits compilation; an attempt to repackage something old, relying on its nostalgic qualities to draw in a new audience in what amounts to an intriguing, but overwhelmingly familiar update.