Hulu’s “High Fidelity” is for people who love to watch a square peg get painfully hammered into a round hole. The sound of a needle scratching across an entire side of a beloved vintage LP also comes to mind.
It’s a 10-episode dramedy series (streaming Friday) that’s based on Nick Hornby’s well-received 1995 novel about the lovesick pangs of a resolutely dyspeptic London record-shop owner trying to get over his ex-girlfriend. John Cusack, one of Generation X’s pre-eminent hangdog crushes, starred in the enjoyable 2000 film adaptation, which relocated the story to Chicago, introduced the moviegoing public to Jack Black (as a hyperactive clerk), and turned out to be a fitting ode to a particular strain of music geekdom that was already marked for extinction. The story, which was also made into a stage musical, was only ostensibly about how men and women navigate relationships in their early 30s; mostly it was about how much some people loved record stores.
But that was long ago, made painfully clear by this weakened remix. God bless today’s hipsters, who insist on calling LPs “vinyl” and dabble at collecting them in a cute, Instagrammable fashion, but “High Fidelity” has no business showing up here in 2020. Nevertheless, the story (with Cusack credited as a co-writer), has been picked up and plopped down in Brooklyn, in the current day, as told from a millennial perspective.
The big twist is gender. Zoë Kravitz (“Big Little Lies”) stars as Rob, the female owner of Champion Records, a basement shop that sells new and used vinyl, along with a wall of old cassettes. Her default grouchiness makes Rob something of a outlier in the social media era, where cheerfulness and positivity grab a smoothie together after yoga class.
In fact, this “High Fidelity” would make so much more sense if it were set in a yoga studio (or a dog-grooming salon) instead of a record store. The cynical prickliness of the material – along with Rob’s incessant fourth-wall narration, describing her woe-is-me mismanagement of her own feelings – is too easily recognizable as a forgery.
The old “High Fidelity,” which was about a man hounding his ex-girlfriends to explain to him why and how he failed as a boyfriend, got creepier with age. The new show believes this problem can be solved by putting a woman in the role of a hapless ex. Let her be the one to stand in the rain and scream obscenities outside someone’s window late at night, just as the male character did. (Stalking was a recurring motif in Cusack’s time, made permanent with the image of him as Lloyd Dobler in “Say Anything,” standing on a girl’s lawn blasting Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” on his boombox until she relents.)
Unfortunately, there’s no meaningful power to be drawn from this role reversal. The obsessive narcissism that formed Hornby’s novel strikes a clunky flat note instead of a sharp, making it difficult for Kravitz to summon a convincing performance that could help bridge the divide. (And yes, I suppose it bears mentioning that Kravitz’s mother, Lisa Bonet, had a small but memorable role in the film version.)
“High Fidelity’s” other obsession – record collecting – is an obvious misfit in the Spotify age, which the show doesn’t stop to fully ponder or, better yet, use as a means to fan an argument. Rather than imagine what a music fetish would look and feel like now, with all its attendant phases of discovery and passion and format disputes, the series lazily imposes the old school onto the new, even recycling a good part of the movie soundtrack’s playlist.
That’s not to say there aren’t a few bright spots, and less cranky (read: younger) viewers may very well warm to what “High Fidelity” is spinning. The characters’ incessant need to rank songs and albums into superlative categories, which Hornby so eloquently chronicled in his novel, is now the instinctive expression of fandom, in the form of clickbait listicles and best-ever proclamations. “High Fidelity” revels in such conversations.
The series is also helped along by some new subplots and memorable supporting characters – especially Da’Vine Joy Randolph and David H. Holmes as Cherise and Simon, the peculiar clerks who work in Rob’s store. Jake Lacy is also good as Clyde, a romantic interest who Rob keeps at arm’s length.
In one of the better episodes, Rob and Clyde visit a tony townhouse uptown, where an installation artist (Parker Posey) offers to sell them her cheating husband’s exquisite and large collection of rare-edition rock albums for “one crisp 20-dollar bill,” which she intends to frame and hang on the wall, as a visual representation of marital revenge.
It’s a moral dilemma for Rob – indulging her own record fetish at the expense of a fellow collector, and it’s a reminder of what’s lasting about Hornby’s original story. Instead of sampling old tracks, “High Fidelity” should have looked harder for original and more modern examples of what music can make us do.