Hulu’s reboot of Hornby’s novel puts a new spin on the familiar tale of music and misery. SPOILERS AHEAD!
Whether you’ve read Nick Hornby’s novel, seen the noughties film starring John Cusack, or were one of the few to catch it on stage, High Fidelity is a story many of us are familiar with. The tale gives audiences a peek inside the mind of a pop-culture enthusiast, music snob, and recent dumpee to offer a tour of their failed – and continually failing – love life.
Originally somewhat of an exposé of straight men’s attitudes towards dating and commitment, Hornby’s book focused on London-based record store owner, Rob Fleming. We explore his interactions with various women over three decades and relive his “top five most memorable split-ups”, beginning with twelve-year-old Rob’s first kiss. This was then revisited in the 2000 cult-classic movie with an even more self-deprecating Chicagoan character. Although, the film finds balance with a heavier dose of comic relief from Jack Black’s portrayal of Barry.
Although there has been criticism over the show losing sight of High Fidelity’s argued ‘purpose’ – exhibiting conceited, self-centered men and exploring their emotional immaturity – the 2020 release is fresh. Hulu’s TV adaptation serves as a reissue, giving the usual story a spin with our protagonist now being a mixed-race, bisexual woman. Rob (in this case, short for Robyn) is played by the incredibly charismatic and cool Zoë Kravitz. These aren’t the only differences, though – the well-loved narrative has been updated. 2020 sees ‘mixtapes’ being shared via Spotify links, the morality of profiting off of problematic artists debated, and snooping now occurring via social media scrolling. The series itself is structured as a compilation, with each episode exploring another of Rob’s relationships — or, in the case of episode eight, examining her best friend Simon’s heartbreaks.
Within the first five minutes of its pilot, High Fidelity discloses the lead’s vulnerability and apprehension towards meeting new people. Our introduction to the re-imagined Rob begins with a rosy-cheeked, teary-eyed Kravitz addressing the camera as she watches Mac (Kingsley Ben-Adir) leave her. Quickly, the episode moves on with a time jump and we see the character spend her night with an online dating match. Clyde, played by New York’s favourite ‘nice guy’ Jake Lacy (Obvious Child, How to Be Single), immediately appears unfit for the sharp and stylish Rob. Attempting to ditch her dry date, she sneaks out, only to be forced back to retrieve her phone, which she left on the table. From here, things pick up and the two get along well, with the innocuous Clyde being established as a surprisingly charming match for Rob. Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” accompanies a conversation about her job and following that, the band itself. This emphasises another difference: where the male Robs may have hated most mainstream music and shot partners down for their so-called inadequate musical opinions, Robyn eases her date’s fears of being uncool by discussing her fondness of the song and unloading her various, scrambled thoughts on Fleetwood’s albums. It’s her passion and deep love for music that becomes evident, not her elitism.
Seeing a woman – and in particular, a woman of colour – who is so knowledgeable about music is incredibly rare on-screen. Hulu’s Rob is given the time to dispense chunks of stored track trivia and recommendations across the series. Episode five sees her correct Tim (Jeffrey Nordling), a pompous, older, white man on the release date of a Wings album. It would be satisfying anyway, but it’s even better after viewers are forced to watch Rob be continuously spoken over, presumed to be uncultured. Tim is blatantly misogynistic, and Clyde unsuccessfully attempts to use his status as another man to bring Rob into the conversation. Ultimately, the correction serves as some form of reparation, leaving the man sorely embarrassed and the younger duo elated. The scene is one of my favourites of the series and serves as a reminder to simultaneously deter mansplainers and encourage women to claim the space they deserve.
I think the show demonstrates the power women could have in general, and I don’t doubt that this was encouraged by Kravitz’s role as an executive producer. Where we’re used to seeing women pine and consistently strive to please men, High Fidelity flips it. Clyde is the one running around, seeking small signs of validation from Rob. Lacy plays his usual role of the sensitive sweetheart; in between his job and volunteer work he still finds the time to visit Rob at the store, bring her food, serve as her personal taxi, and semi-steal an original Bowie pressing. Like in the earlier versions, the lead continues to avoid commitment – shown through casual sex, undefined flirtationships with multiple men, her toilet-lie ditch tactic. The show breaks the fourth-wall to give us much more insight into Rob than she offers to her friends and family. Despite always presenting a brave face and her signature smirk, she hides her anger and hurt, predominantly expressing herself to the camera with a series of “fucks”, “shits” and screams.
Another reason for my infatuation with the show is its realness. In many ways, Rob’s life doesn’t seem so far from my own; admittedly, I also see playlist-curation as an artistic hobby, I’m an obsessive list-maker, and a passionate believer that “what you like” provides a strong sense of your character. Beneath this, though, there’s more: Rob’s sexuality doesn’t feel trivialised. Her ex-girlfriend, Kat (Ivanna Sakhno), is another past lover that is revisited. The Instagram influencer and her “remarkable” life intimidate Rob, emphasising her insecurity and forcing the lead into her most awkward state yet. Rob claims that Kat made her feel as though she “wasn’t enough” and appears more passive in the episode, allowing the model to play dress-up with her. Almost opposites, it’s strange to think that the two were ever together, yet the sexual tension and chemistry between the women suggests that there was an intimate bond. Kat and Rob’s romance isn’t made out to be a blip or part of some ‘phase’; in fact, she seems to have been one of the more significant breakups for the protagonist – their connection is even compared to her relationship with Mac.
Further intersectionality is demonstrated through the supporting characters. Barry is now Cherise (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), a loyal friend and passionate black woman desperate to start a band. However, behind her comical and performative nature lies insecurity. Despite her displays of confidence, her identity appears to hold her back and small moments of vulnerability are unveiled. At one point, a young, typical ‘indie’ type reads her ad and after seeing her, leaves the store without a word. Although she pretends not to notice, the hurt is apparent through her expression. A touching scene in the finale highlights this soft side of the character and we finally hear her warm voice as she covers Stevie Wonder’s “I Believe”. Not only is it refreshing to see someone like Cherise express her aspirations, but to be granted access to those tender moments adds even more depth to a character who would usually be stereotyped.
Third and final store employee, Simon (David H. Holmes) seems to be the calmer, more down-to-earth member of the trio, but episode eight (in which he becomes the lead) shows that there’s more to him than we may initially think. By this point, audiences are already aware that Rob and Simon dated. Their close friendship, the signature drink of whisky neat, and once, almost-identical opinions position the two to be more like twins than lovers. Beyond the surface-level parallels, there appear to be emotional comparisons too. “What?”, he questions the camera. “You think Rob has this monopoly on heartbreak?”. And describes his experience of being dumped as “a piercing ache in [his] soul that will never heal” – they seem to feel things just as deeply as each other, too. Endearingly honest, Simon’s episode does exhibit his top five heartbreaks, but they’re all with the same man. Episode eight highlights modern dating culture’s issue with labels. Simon’s boyfriend(?) Ben (Christian Coulson) is familiar to many. He crawls back when he wants entertainment or attention and, although he couldn’t be more different appearance-wise, he seems comparable to the ‘soft boi’ archetype in this way. Eventually, Ben’s treatment of Simon only makes him increasingly insecure until it all falls apart. The episode ends with optimism though: Simon finally finds it in himself to reject Ben, and instead gives a new guy a chance.
While the show may inherit similar themes and stories, the novel and the film adaptation both left me feeling a little deflated; with almost hours of insight into Rob’s mistakes and bad habits, he does little to redeem himself before he and his ex agree to get back together. With ten episodes, Hulu’s adaptation provides Robyn with the opportunity to become self-aware and reflect on her treatment of the people in her life; “I’ve been figuring out a lot of stuff”, she says, “…like, how to stop living in the past and how to stop taking shit for granted and people for granted…”. Both material and emotional sacrifices are made in the finale as an attempt at reconciliation. She puts her pride and ego aside, sells a prized possession and finally sheds some of her cool, quick-witted exterior.
As my personal favourite, I have now seen every episode at least six times. I’m caught somewhere between wanting to be her and be with her at this stage, which may be worrying considering how selfish she is, but I also think this emphasises just how much warmth Kravitz brings to the character. I must admit that I feel some disappointment with the lack of development for Cherise, but I was hopeful that a second season would dive deeper into her character’s musical talent and Rob’s relationships with women. The news that my favourite show has been cancelled is almost agonising. High Fidelity treated me to a taste of true representation and allowed me to see myself on-screen for the first time, so to have that taken away is painful.
Congratulations! You’ve made it to the top five, Hulu. Stealing the spotlight at number one, my most memorable heartbreak is the cancellation of High Fidelity.
Yazz James is a twenty-one-year-old, Brighton-based writer and creative. She is currently completing a communications degree at the University of Sussex. Find her on Twitter @oncleyazz and Instagram @yazzjames.