Da'Vine Joy Randolph
David H. Holmes
High Fidelity February 26, 2020
igh Fidelity (2020), on Hulu, sounds like just another unnecessary reboot on paper. Fortunately it proves itself more interesting than that; now that I’ve watched all of its 10 episodes I’d for sure take out the “unnecessary” descriptor. It is, if you haven’t guessed already, an adaptation of Nick Hornby’s 1995 novel of the same name, which was famously cinematized, in 2000, with John Cusack in the lead
role. Both are about a 30-something record-store owner named Rob who, following a breakup with a woman who is the closest he’s had to “the one,” briefly reinserts himself back into the lives of his exes in a gauche (but great for our entertainment) attempt at self-examination.
This simple-enough narrative throughline was dotted — almost more indelibly than the analytic meetups with past flames — by long sequences during which Rob and his friends were just talking. Often their conversations were founded on verbally organizing their experiences and tastes into top-five lists. (E.g., top five side one, tracks ones on albums; top five songs to have sung at one’s funeral.) Are these people subconsciously trying to make their existences feel more cinematic? I haven’t forgotten the specificity of one of Rob’s expressed dream jobs: music-writing at the New Musical Express but only between the years 1976 and 1979 — a golden era, to his eye.
When you pick at their relative man-childish worldviews and vulnerabilities the characters of High Fidelity are objectively a bit insufferable — comically obsessive about pop-cultural trivialities and stunted by way of personal growth probably as a result. Still, when it came to both the book and the movie I really liked spending time with them. At the risk of evincing myself equally insufferable, I saw myself in Rob and his cronies in many respects. (Some of their viewpoints — namely their subliminal misogyny — are still bothersome.)
Unapproachably cool Zoë Kravitz, who is the star and co-executive producer of Hulu’s High Fidelity, felt in a lot of ways similarly to me when she first got acquainted with the work. (A bit unexpected mostly because her mother, Lisa Bonet, played one of Rob’s love interests, an unapproachably cool singer, in the movie.) “I always related to that character,” Kravitz told Rolling Stone in 2018, shortly after the adaptation had been announced. “Just this neurotic mess of a person who can’t get out of her own way. It’s ironic to me that in a lot of stories men are the complicated, layered characters, when I think women are the most complicated and the most layered. We’re supposed to be perfect and take care of everyone, but sometimes we fall apart and we’re a big ol’ mess. If you don’t see that, you wonder, ‘Am I the only one who’s a fuckin’ mess?’”
Her love for High Fidelity proved serendipitous. When show-developers Sarah Kucserka and Veronica West were planning the TV adaptation, before Kravitz got involved, she was actually one of their picks to play Rob — a “pie in the sky, it’s never going to happen” choice. (Kucserka and West are best known for their work on Ugly Betty.)
Was anyone clamoring for another High Fidelity? Even an intriguing, echt-for-2020 one where Rob is reimagined as a bisexual, black, female Brooklynite and where her sidekicks-slash-employees are now a brassy black woman (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) and a gay white man (David H. Holmes)? (The book and movie, respectively, took place in London and Chicago, and in both cases were Rob and his two best pals straight white men.) Would this be a show which extols the virtues of diverse casting but would only limitedly explore the experiences of its diverse characters? Would it ultimately come across like pandering, corporate inclusivity?
High Fidelity has its problems. It mostly has an old-fashionedly color-blind ethos (though shows nuance in certain moments) and under-develops most though not all of its supporting players. It presents us with a glowy vision of Brooklyn, even though during development it was intended to appear more true-to-life than recent, white-washed portrayals of the borough. It carries over the same major issue the movie had: that even though they’re narratively weighty, the meet-ups with old romantic partners are far less interesting than moments during which Rob and co. are hanging out, or during which Rob is internally monologuing. (She breaks the fourth wall to externalize her troubles.)
Kravitz is perhaps too cool — and I mean cool with a trademark sign à la James Dean or, to be more obvious, à la her famous parents — to ever totally convince us both that Rob would be serially broken up with or that her sartorial messiness isn’t calculated. (Like her male forebears, Kravitz's Rob is supposed to be unconscious of her attire, though more often she looks like a meticulous thrift-store doyenne.)
Sometimes it feels like we’re inside a parallel 2020. Modern technologies and how they relate to dating are seldom brought up. The musical references are rightfully obscure. But they're also a bit antiquated for tastemakers of Rob’s kind; usually, modern stuff is seen via vinyl covers but not actually heard. “The show unfolds in some atemporal nostalgia zone; Rob seems like a middle-aged person’s idealized view of a heartbroken young person,” the critic Troy Patterson put it in a recent review of the show.
ut 2020’s High Fidelity also carries over the utmost joys of both the book and the movie. We enjoy spending time with these people; there are some reservations, but not the same ones. (The underlying misogyny, for one thing, is gone.) The length of a series by design really lets such a sensation marinate — enough so that I felt inclined to give the show the benefit of the doubt that the shortcomings of Season One
would potentially be remedied, or at the least be further developed, if a second season were to get greenlit.
High Fidelity is an unmistakable breakthrough for Kravitz. While always good in the movies and series in which she’s been featured, she's rarely been the lead. She’s frequently tokenized, too, like, most egregiously, on HBO’s Big Little Lies (2017-present), where her character was not given as distinctive of an inner life as her white co-stars. The new High Fidelity hasn’t figured out yet how to be persuasively emotionally thorny, or how to adeptly make Rob’s neuroses have a tangibility. A lot of them are tritely signaled outwardly: Rob forlornly eating Indian food in her bathtub; putting a Minnie Riperton record on, sitting in an easy chair, and letting the tears spill out if they so choose to. Yet Kravitz, rather than amplify the limitations of the writing through her performance, instead lifts up what the show does well and obscures the defects. We like to watch her.
Randolph, who was terrific in last year’s Dolemite Is My Name (2019), is very good here — lovably plainspoken and charismatically aggressive. I did, though, find her character’s arc finally mawkish; perhaps she’ll be more effectively invested in in another season. Holmes for most of the show is just an occasionally accentuated Rob underling. But then, in the excellent eighth episode, the series makes Rob secondary and puts Holmes’ character at the forefront. His heartbreaks are dramatized, and the depiction of what it’s been like for him, as a newly out gay man, to navigate romance is moving. (The conclusion the show comes to is that he’s still figuring things out.)
Kravitz, Randolph, and Holmes have nicely misfittish chemistry. They’re an eventually lovable gaggle of music obsessives whose us-against-the-world (and as such easy-for-Rob-to-take-for-granted) connection is at first a smidge intolerable. Usually the latter description is at its most rigid when the trio openly judges the basic-taste customers of Rob's record shop. In one moment, Randolph's character hurls vitriol at a woman for buying Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall (1979). In several others, when Rob is playing a deep cut on the loudspeakers and someone says it’s good, she will without fail reply, “I know.” But this sort of stuff grows on us. Once High Fidelity overcomes some of its growing pains, it will grow more on us, too. I still like it a lot, though. I think it has top-five TV adaptations list potential. B+