In theory, a gender-swapped High Fidelity remake ought to work. The original movie, based on Nick Hornby’s novel, starred John Cusack as Rob, a music-obsessed Chicago record-store owner who’s terrible at romantic relationships. The 2000 film was never a box-office smash, but it became a cult favorite, especially for those of us, like Rob, who always felt more confident announcing our Top 5 favorite opening tracks than understanding how to make love last. But because High Fidelity was from such a strong male perspective — not to mention a very specific male perspective, that of the pop-culture-literate super-nerd — it always seemed like another voice needed to be heard from. Even Cusack, who co-wrote the original film and isn’t too enthused about the prospect of a new High Fidelity, agreed that a woman’s slant on the material would be valuable:
Unfortunately, although Hulu’s High Fidelity series, which premieres on Valentine’s Day, does feature “the woman part” prominently, this remake never entirely works — and not because of the gender swap. Perhaps there’s nothing inherently “male” or “female” about Hornby’s tale of a music lover who needs to grow up, but the new series does overlook one of the movie’s most bro-heavy elements, which turns out to be crucial. Trying to update High Fidelity for the modern age, the writers forget that this material only really works if Rob is an asshole — and if he’s/she’s an asshole specifically because they adore their albums more than anything else in the world. Hornby’s story isn’t really about gender as much as it is about getting over your record collection.
The new series stars Zoë Kravitz as Rob, a Brooklyn record-store owner who’s been miserable since she and her former fiancé Mac (Kingsley Ben-Adir) broke up about a year ago. Pining for Mac while working alongside Simon (David H. Holmes), a deadpan gay man, and Cherise (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), a brash aspiring musician, Rob tries to figure out why she keeps getting her heart broken, looking back through past relationships to see if there are any commonalities to her failures. All the while, she listens to records — vinyl predominantly, of course. (Her store proudly displays the sign “No CDs.”)
If that sounds a lot like the 2000 High Fidelity, that’s the idea, except that Rob is now a hip Brooklyn gal instead of a dour Chicago dude. (And having the character be played by Kravitz, whose father is rock star Lenny Kravitz and mother is actress Lisa Bonet, who appeared in the movie as one of Rob’s love interest, is especially meta.) But while the 10-episode season focuses on several of the plot points from the Cusack film, the show (overseen by Ugly Betty writers Veronica West and Sarah Kucserka) fumbles Rob’s relationship to music, which is far less fraught than any she has with an ex. It’s not that women can’t be as obsessive about their vinyl as men, but this Rob isn’t nearly as fanatical as Cusack’s was. And while that might make the character seem more palatable, it ends up having the opposite effect. Cusack’s Rob was a spiteful manchild crippled by his devotion to records — by comparison, Kravitz’s Rob is just obnoxious.
From the first few episodes of the series, it’s clear that Rob is meant to be a maddening, frustrating mess of a human being. Distraught to learn that Mac has moved back to Brooklyn, and engaged to a woman he met in London, Rob starts to spiral, drowning in her neuroses, which she shares with the audience by speaking directly to us, just like in the Cusack film. She hooks up with an affable, slightly dorky guy named Clyde (Jake Lacy), who she immediately treats like shit because he’s so sweet. (Like a lot of people, Rob assumes that anyone who’s nice to her must be a loser.) Rob makes bad choices, is judgmental as hell, and generally speaking, a bit of a nightmare.
Cusack’s Rob was no less of a walking disaster, but what was always fascinating about the film was how it suggested that, for better or worse, he was a product of his slavish music passion. Compulsively compiling different Top 5 lists, sweating every detail of the mixtapes he made, and coming across as a general know-it-all about all things pop culture, this Rob was the kind of guy you meet in your 20s who’s sorta fun at a party — but, eventually, you outgrow his blinkered attitude, which sees everything through the prism of old records, comic books and movies. The tragedy of Cusack’s Rob was that he worshiped music but understood nothing of the building blocks of life that give music its meaning. Love, commitment, pain, maturity, forgiveness, acceptance: These are the themes of so many indelible songs, but Rob only knew them as theoretical concepts. He couldn’t take what he adored about music and put it into the real world.
To be sure, that failing didn’t absolve Cusack’s Rob of his shitty, selfish behavior, but it at least tapped into his fatal flaw — and, I suspect, that of a lot of guys who build their lives out of one-upping other guys on pop-culture minutiae. (In retrospect, I’m a little embarrassed that my girlfriend at the time, who also liked the High Fidelity movie, said to me afterward, “I think I understand you a little better now.”) I’m sure many of them, in fact, have foolishly adopted Rob as their patron saint, not recognizing that High Fidelity is a cautionary tale about the doomed need to control a relationship in the same way that you catalog your records. But songs are perfect little bursts of melody and feeling — they don’t contain the messiness and uncertainty that a long-term love affair creates. Love is a two-way street, not the one-sided relationship you have with your favorite songs, which is in service only to you and requires nothing in return.
A really smart remake could highlight those ironies — or demonstrate how this lack of emotional maturity isn’t just the domain of men. Sadly, Hulu’s High Fidelity doesn’t really do either. Most disappointingly, it gets the music element wrong, which is strange considering how unique of an era we’re living in for audiophiles. In the 20 years since the film came out, mixtapes have been replaced by playlists, vinyl has become a fetishized object and the industry has moved away from albums to individual tracks — and from artists making money on record sales to scraping by on endless touring and other ancillary means. This High Fidelity, however, isn’t particularly interested in that reality — or how it would affect music-lovers like Rob and her employees — and not nearly obsessive enough in its depiction of what music means to people.
Again, that more moderate version of fandom would seem to be the healthier way to live — the TV show doesn’t even spend a lot of time on Top 5 lists — but without that nerding-out, High Fidelity’s protagonist loses her primary obstacle, and therefore, much of the show’s reason to exist. Kravitz’s Rob is just a garden-variety narcissist who really likes music, but not in any way that seems to be harming her life. And because the show adopts the movie’s device of having Rob speak directly to the camera, this High Fidelity just draws unflattering comparisons to Fleabag, another show about a troubled female protagonist who talks right at us. Problem is, Fleabag is a funny, complex, absorbing character. Kravitz’s Rob just isn’t — the writers haven’t figured out a way to make her devotion to music particularly revealing. (Without spoiling anything, let’s just say that the show also repeats the film’s trick of having real-life rock stars interact with our hero, but it just feels obligatory, a callback to the movie that doesn’t say anything about Rob or her relationship to her musical heroes.)
At one point in the Hulu series, the characters discuss the possibility that the stuff we love — the movies, the TV shows, the albums — says more about us than our actual personalities. Maybe that’s a shallow insight, but I also think there’s something to it. Our taste is a fundamental component of our essence, a way for us to find common ground with another person. (It can backfire, of course: Rob isn’t sure she can date Clyde because he loves Phish.)
Across its different incarnations, High Fidelity has always been about how we use pop culture — the very idea of curated taste — to make sense of the world, but also shield ourselves from it. In the movie, Rob learns that he has to lower that shield. The TV series doesn’t end with as definitive a conclusion, but I found myself having a harder time relating to this Rob — and not because she’s a woman. Honestly, it’s because I didn’t quite understand what she loves and why she loves it. Cusack’s Rob spent so much time fixating on and arguing about music that, although tiresome, I felt like I knew him. Kravitz’s Rob claims that music saved her life, but I have yet to see that really play out in the show. I guess you could argue that this new High Fidelity presents fandom as something far less toxic than how it’s usually portrayed.
Great, then how come she’s still such a jerk?