Television

The High Fidelity Series Is a Cover Song That Finds Its Own Rhythm

The gender-flipped adaptation feels divorced from reality, but it creates its own world.

Zoë Kravitz and Jake Lacy in High Fidelity.
Zoë Kravitz and Jake Lacy in High Fidelity. Phillip Caruso/Hulu

The new gender-swapped High Fidelity has many charms. One is that it takes place in a surreptitiously modified alternate universe. Admittedly, at no point does the Hulu series—based on the John Cusack film based on the Nick Hornby novel about a lovelorn record store owner who hides from his heartbreak by obsessively ranking his life experiences—announce, reveal, or in any way state that it takes place in a world ever so slightly different than our own. But an astute viewer can take a hint.

The clues are as thick as the grooves in the LPs that Rob (Zoë Kravitz) sells out of her sparsely attended Brooklyn record shop, one that not only makes rent but somehow affords two full-time employees. While the store’s inexplicable solvency means the show also exists in the same alternate universe as every other TV series set in an affordable New York City, it is not High Fidelity’s primary oddity. No, that’s the one where a biracial, female millennial living in the present has the musical taste and quirks of a Gen X white guy living in 2000, when the word streaming mostly applied to tears.

Like the film, the new High Fidelity, which was created by Sarah Kucserka and Veronica West, concerns itself with a Rob (née Robin) who is coming off a gutting heartbreak she cannot see clearly. A year prior, her fiancé Mac (Kingsley Ben-Adir), a dreamy Brit, left her, and she’s still picking up the pieces, hibernating in her apartment, listening to records and making Top Five lists, which she shares in punchy asides straight to the camera. Her social circle primarily encompasses her two employees, the irrepressible Cherise (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) and the corkscrew-curled, low-key Simon (David H. Holmes), her gay best friend and ex-boyfriend, although Rob seems like the sort of person who used to have more friends. As the show begins, she starts dating again, trying to move forward even as she’s looking back, exploring her Top Five Heartbreaks and contending with the emotional fallout of the return of (the) Mac.

The original High Fidelity, a movie I really like, was about a particular kind of man: the asshole who thinks he’s a nice guy. Heartbroken and furious over a relationship he refused to see he’d sabotaged, he quipped his way through his past love life, looking not for answers but benediction: He wasn’t to blame for any of it, right? While Cusack is always soulful—his smart aleck beta energy being the ideal vehicle for musical mansplaining—and the movie sees his flaws clearly, if gently, it does involve him bedding a series of extremely accomplished and beautiful women he would be the first to agree were too good for him.

Like Cusack’s Rob, Kravitz’s is immature, a charmingly self-pitying introvert who wallows and self-flagellates in an appealing way. She too cares more about good taste than kind behavior. She bonds with Simon because they both believe that what you like—the music, the books, the art—is so much more important than anything else about you, a convenient formulation for Rob, whose taste is impeccable but whose behavior is less so. But Kravitz’s Rob isn’t simply the same as Cusack’s; she isn’t just a retread. In swapping Rob’s race and gender, the show refreshes the type, simply because a race- and gender-swapped toxic music nerd isn’t a type. That’s one of the points of the adaptation: This kind of person is so associated with guys that just by making the character a woman, it cracks the premise open—a cover song that sounds like a brand-new track.

That track is, mostly, very lovely, a searching and sweet love song anchored by wonderfully unshowy performances from Kravitz and Holmes and a wonderfully showy one from Randolph. Like I said at the top: High Fidelity has many charms. But it does also have a recurring dissonance, a bunch of vestigial generational and dude behaviors that make the record skip. I am speaking of the Top Five tic, which, in form and content, is like a “moo” coming from a cat.

There have never been more ways to be a woman—physically, behaviorally—than there are now, but this does not mean that women are identical to men. Our exteriors define so much of our lived experience, so much of how we are treated, that you can’t just strip the skin off a person, lay it on another, and think that you have captured their essence, a misunderstanding that has tripped up so many projects, American Dirt only being the most recent. The film version of High Fidelity understood Rob’s (and his record store compadres) compulsion to listify and rank everything as a deeply dude-ish reflex meant to help collate, sort, and control his unruly emotions. When Rob felt lost, hurt, confused, he Top Five’d or gave detailed instructions on the “correct” way to make a mixtape. It’s not as if women don’t want to organize the emotional chaos of our lives, but a heartbroken woman is not, in my experience, going to distract herself by obsessively ranking her desert island records or fanatically relating her rigid rules for playlist construction.

This is not because boys are natively wonks and factoid lovers who care so much more about playlists than women do. It’s because the way we have been taught to gather and share knowledge, what kind of knowledge we’ve been taught is valuable, and the way we connect with other human beings are all so deeply gendered. Accumulating and sharing stats and factoids is one way men bond, talk, and play with one another. It is not—generally speaking—how women bond or talk or play with one another, because, among other things, we have more latitude to talk about our feelings and everyone else’s.

Moreover, as a female hetero dating strategy, it is maladaptive, even as it was so much part of the original Rob’s romantic appeal. As the show itself makes clear, deep, esoteric knowledge and mastery is not something men, to their great discredit, always respond to well, even in a woman who looks like Zoë Kravitz. (A heel with an impeccable record collection hates how much Rob knows her Paul McCartney.) Some men are on a power trip and find it threatening, some are douches and find it unfeminine, and then there’s just the fact that this kind of knowledge performance is often extremely dull. (Please, flash to that time in college you let some dude explain music to you). And while women have been acculturated to be nice and patient and even curious about this sort of thing, men—generally speaking, again!— have not. Of the gazillion reasons women don’t womansplain, one is that many men are not polite enough to sit through it.

I found all of this to be unrealistic to the point of being slightly distracting, but not in a bad way. It’s like the pickle that comes with the club sandwich, the vegetable on the diner plate, something to crunch on—look at all the subtle and unforeseen ramifications of a straightforward gender swap. Heyo! Maybe there’s no such thing as a straightforward gender swap—that cuts through the tasty bacon and fries.

More distracting, though, is the generational stuff. The soundtrack for High Fidelity has been overseen by Questlove, and it sounds great, but there is a heavy emphasis on the past. All the bands the show has Rob talking about at length, to demonstrate her mastery to the audience, are old and rockist: Fleetwood Mac, McCartney, Bowie, Minnie Riperton, and Swamp Dogg are the kind of acts that get shoutouts, and rap and hip-hop are barely played in the store. The young shoplifters who turn out to be making their own good music are also a kind of rock duo. Cherise, who, like Jack Black’s character in the film, really wants her own band, cites a huge number of older rock and R&B influences. There’s a sexy, up-and-coming rock star Rob’s sleeping with (the gender-swapped version of the character Lisa Bonet, Kravitz’s mother, played in the original film), who is produced by Jack Antonoff, but his most memorable performance is of Boyz II Men’s 1994 hit “I’ll Make Love To You.” When Cherise plays a “bad” song that she insists is also a bop, one that Rob and Simon eventually admit is kind of great, it’s “Come On Eileen.” Rob is supposed to have unimpeachable taste, but it seems, instead, like she has the taste of a woman who doesn’t want to be accused of having chick taste, or even just millennial taste, which suggests a pretty different character than the musically confident and knowledgeable one Kravitz is playing.

Yet what’s good about the show is good enough that none of this made me want to turn it off. Instead, it made me want to explain it, to think about alternate universes. Is there something that had happened in the world of the show that would make sense of Rob’s rockist obsessions, her rankings? Think about that movie about a world where the Beatles didn’t exist, but better. Does High Fidelity exist in a timeline where Kurt Cobain didn’t die? Kool Herc was never born? CDs were never invented? Napster never existed? Some very great rock band was the biggest act of the 2000s? In which some high-profile element of second-wave feminism involved obsessive listmaking? Or a Marie Kondo–esque phenomenon, in which people sparked joy through top fiving, swept the globe?

High Fidelity works if you assume it’s inflected with a light sci-fi air. It even matches the setting: The production shut down streets in Crown Heights for weeks and weeks, but the results are oddly anodyne. (Maybe it’s set in a New York with half the gentrification?) And once the show gets past the first four episodes, the writing begins to more exactly fit its protagonist and her performance. As Kravitz’s Rob diverges from Cusack’s and the language of the film, she stops listing stuff quite so much. She becomes not a riff on someone else, but herself. Funnily, as this happens, the comparison that kept popping into my mind stopped being High Fidelity and started to become the first season of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag, another show in which a woman communicates directly to the camera, drawing us in even as she withholds information from us, all to keep up an image of herself she knows is bunk. Unlike Cusack’s character, this Rob is monologuing because she does know herself. She’s just not ready to face it. The song was different all along.