'High Fidelity': TV Review

A mostly soulless cover that doesn't understand what made the original distinctive.
2/14/2020

Zoe Kravitz stars in and executive produces a gender-flipped Hulu reboot of the Stephen Frears adaptation of Nick Hornby's 1995 novel.

To rewatch High Fidelity, the 2000 John Cusack vehicle about a music snob in denial about just how badly his most recent breakup has shaken him, is to realize we've never left it behind. Stephen Frears' adaptation of Nick Hornby's 1995 novel addressed toxic masculinity and bullying fandom well before TV's antihero trend and the movies' current spate of self-rehabbing men, but the film — not unlike David Fincher's Fight Club, which debuted the year before — also romanticized its protagonist's shortcomings more than it critiqued them. For most of High Fidelity, Cusack's Rob is the kind of self-justifying jerk who claims that "what really matters is what you like, not what you are like." Though Rob about-faces by the end, the film's soft-pedaling of its source material's themes are such that Roger Ebert wrote in his review, "Watching High Fidelity, I had the feeling I could walk out of the theater and meet the same people on the street — and want to, which is an even higher compliment."

All of the above made the announcement of a gender-flipped High Fidelity reboot, starring Zoe Kravitz as record store owner Rob, to speak generously, a head-scratcher. The syndromes that the book and the film diagnosed aren't exclusive to men, but they're by and large male phenomena — there's a reason why The Simpsons' Comic Book Guy is a guy, and why The Police's stalker ballad "Every Breath You Take" (another frequently misunderstood rebuke of male menace) is more potent when sung by a male singer. Consider the fact that the film begins with a soliloquy about teenagers "listening to thousands … of songs about broken hearts and rejection and pain and misery and loss," and you can't escape the subtext that Rob's objectification of the women in his life is at least partly influenced by pop music's history of male crooners and songwriters getting to dictate the terms of love and heartbreak and the blame therein, who have themselves been bolstered by an industry that has historically preferred male voices and points of view.

If there's a way to make a counterintuitive gambit like a female-centric version of High Fidelity work, the creatives behind this one certainly haven't found it. Nearly every major decision, from the premise to the casting to the grueling callbacks to the film, is a fumble. The show isn't just unnecessary; it's a largely soulless cover that doesn't understand what made the original distinctive. Perhaps most dispiritingly, the marvelous wit and poignancy of the two episodes whose storylines appear to be wholly invented by the show's writers suggest that a great deal of talent was wasted on trying to give life to a seemingly DOA concept.

Other than its Brooklyn setting, the reboot hews claustrophobically close to the film. The show begins with Rob talking to the camera mid-breakup, as her now ex, Mac (Kingsley Ben-Adir), storms out the door. Bearing the brunt of her ill temper the next day are her two employees, mumbly Simon (David Holmes) and aggro but insecure Cherise (Da'Vine Joy Randolph, confidently filling Jack Black's shoes while giving their shared character new dimensions). Mopey but horny, Rob counts down her "all-time, top-five most memorable heartbreaks" while taking on a couple new lovers: clean-cut Clyde (Jake Lacy, in a familiar role as the decent square into "quirky" girls) and rocker Liam (Scottish Thomas Doherty, who occupies the "exotic" singer role played by Kravitz's mother, Lisa Bonet, in the film).

Over the 10-episode season (episodes run a half hour each), Rob tends to her heartache like a horticulturalist to a bonsai tree, constantly shaping and reshaping it into ever more bewitching, and perhaps more unnatural, forms. Cusack's Rob talked and talked to avoid confronting his own feelings, but the structure of a two-hour movie meant he had to shut up at some point to get on the road to redemption. Kravitz's character is less gabby, but even harder to put up with, since the theoretical limitlessness of TV storytelling means her pity party never has to end. You've probably had a friend like her: Someone whose romantic angst crossed over into solipsism a long time ago, and whose two-hour calls about her latest breakup, six months after the fact, you start guiltily avoiding. For a Valentine's Day confection, High Fidelity is oppressively glum.

Stretching out a two-hour movie into a five-hour drama while emptying it of its thematic substance and cultural relevance with little to replace them is exasperating enough. But High Fidelity also asks us to disbelieve our eyes by positing Kravitz — who is very much styled here as "Zoe Kravitz, impossibly glamorous daughter of a rock star" — as a relatable everywoman, which feels as if a young Lenny Kravitz was cast as one of the Freaks and Geeks. If anyone can be too gorgeous and effortlessly cool for a role, it's Kravitz here, which makes sighing lines like, "I've always wanted to date a musician" laughable and distracting. (All she had to do was snap her fingers and steel herself for the stampede of shoegazers.) To take stock: Rob is a 29-year-old woman with her own business; a spacious, millennial-pink apartment; friend-employees who adore her; family she sees regularly; a New York neighborhood she feels rooted in; a face and wardrobe like Zoe Kravitz's — and the show wants us to feel bad for her because she hasn't figured out her love life by her 30th birthday. High Fidelity keeps telling me she's a screw-up, but most people would die to have her problems — and her judgment, and compassion and overall groundedness.

Despite a proficient lead performance by Kravitz, the two best episodes are the ones where she lets others shine. Parker Posey guest-stars as a vengeful wife seeking to sell her cheating husband's treasure-filled record collection to Rob, and though the episode ultimately reinforces what a tepid creation our protagonist is, Posey's performance provides fireworks in the middle of a long, gray night, while the writers (all too briefly) explore the area of the Venn diagram where fandom and misogyny meet. (At the end of the episode, Rob shudders, "That was like being a woman in a Michael Bay movie," in one of the show's few funny lines.) Even better is the installment dedicated to recently-out Simon's top-five heartbreaks, which does pretty much everything that the season sets out to do within a compact 25 minutes, and with more poignancy.

Perhaps the one clear advantage the series has over High Fidelity's previous iterations is its embrace of musical eclecticism. The show's sonic landscape is a mix of oldies and contemporary bops, a melange of Minnie Riperton and Outkast and Durand Jones and The Indications. High Fidelity isn't entirely color- or bias-blind, as evidenced by the presumed rockist Simon's impassioned defense of disco as a genre of "liberation." But an aborted debate between Simon and Cherise about whether Frankie Valli or Lauryn Hill sang the better version of "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You" — with Simon's whiteness and Cherise's blackness informing this discussion of how tastes and canons are formed and reified — hints at a grappling that never comes, perhaps because to do so would have to mean acknowledging that prevailing tastes, and the often hostile acts and attitudes that reinforce them, are dictated by larger forces like gender and race and sexuality. The history of pop music is the history of America in the 20th and 21st centuries. What's High Fidelity got to do with any of that?

Cast: Zoë Kravitz, Jake Lacy, Da'Vine Joy Randolph, David Holmes, Kingsley Ben-Adir
Creators: Veronica West, Sarah Kucserka
Showrunners: Midnight Radio (Josh Appelbaum, André Nemec, Jeff Pinkner, Scott Rosenberg)

Premieres: Friday, Feb. 14 (Hulu)