All-time, top-five, desert-island stories in which the protagonist directly addresses the audience, adding a level of intimacy and immediacy to the telling it might not otherwise achieve. One: Hamlet. Obvious, maybe, but a classic’s a classic for a reason. Go ahead and fold Macbeth, Richard III, and some of the comedies in there too if you want, but that battle was won with “More than kin and less than kind.” Two: The moment in “Trading Places” where Eddie Murphy looks directly at the camera. Perfect. Three: “Fleabag”. This is not recency bias; “Fleabag” would make the list for its first season alone but when the Priest notices the asides in the second season … that’s just next-level shit. Four, this is the point in a list where you throw in a curveball: Gonzo and Rizzo in “The Muppet Christmas Carol,” specifically when they abandon you because the story is getting too scary. And number five: The Hulu series adaptation of the film adaptation of Nick Hornby’s “High Fidelity.” It was going to be the film, but after watching all of this empathetic, textured, funny, surprising, and affectionate reimagining, it can’t be denied that the series earns its place. Number five, with a bullet. Welcome.
Such rankings are far from definitive, of course; they exist to start conversations, not end them. That’s something both adaptations of Hornby’s story make clear, despite what those who’ve latched onto “what you like, not what you are like” as a mantra might say—and this adaptation has a point or two to make about that idea, too. So it’s fitting the Zoë Kravitz-starring “High Fidelty,” developed for television by Veronica West and Sarah Kucserka, exists in conversation with both the novel and its earlier adaptation. Yes, Kravitz’s mother, Lisa Bonet, played a key role in the film, and sure, there are more than a few visual and musical echoes, from the costuming to the way Rob’s first, shattering breakup is filmed, to the sonic presence of artists like Stevie Wonder and The Beta Band. (Alas, no one sells five copies of “The Three EPs.”) What allows this conversation to occur—and it’s a thoughtful, shifting, even intricate one—is something so simple. Hulu’s “High Fidelity” has time on its side. Its lists need not be final and definitive, its connections can wax and wane as they do in life. And Rob and the other characters get to be both what they like and what they are like in a way that the film, for all its strengths, could never dream of approaching.
Of course, having a terrific protagonist (and a strong central performance) helps quite a lot. Rob (now short for Robin, and played by Kravitz) a young-but-getting-older record shop owner whose passion for music rivals her knack for making messy, self-destructive decisions, is going through some things. Her shop, which seems to be something of a Brooklyn institution, is sleepy every day but Saturday, while bars dedicated to frosé and overpriced coffee joints thrive; her employees (Da'Vine Joy Randolph and David H. Holmes, both excellent) seem to be, aside from her brother (Rainbow Sun Francks), her only friends. She loves the store, but as she tells us in one of many asides, she’s also basically stuck, and she loves her friends, but when she’s dealing with something, she’s not much of a friend in return. And of course, she’s going through a break-up, her fiancé (Kingsley Ben-Adir) having walked out the door a year and change earlier—and wouldn’t you know it, he’s just moved back into town.
Life’s refusal to slow down when one’s heart is broken is one of the ruder aspects of existence, but because this “High Fidelity” has all that extra time with which to play, that rudeness becomes a hell of an asset. West, Kucserka, and the show’s team of writers show us both a Rob consumed by that heartbreak and a Rob going about the business of life in a way that the film simply couldn’t; she falls in and out of touch with people, changes her mind frequently, recovers and slips backward, and contradicts herself. That the series dwells on her heartbreaks is due not to the economy of its runtime, but her own fixations, and when Rob successfully manages to distract herself, the series comes alive in a new way. Sometimes, as in one mid-season standout, you just have to press pause on melancholy, call the guy you hooked up with once and then were sort of a dick to (Jake Lacy, wonderful) because he’s got a car, and deal with the massive record collection a socialite (Parker Posey) wants to revenge-sell out from under her cheating husband.
Those extra hours also allow the supporting characters to be drawn in subtler shades, as well. Another standout episode arrives late in this 10-episode series, when Rob’s best friend Simon (Holmes) wanders away from her story and the camera follows. His first address to the camera is a series-shifting, perspective-broadening moment, one that speaks to the promise of this series; one hopes that Cherise (Randolph, who is every bit as good here as she was in “Dolemite Is My Name”) will get her turn to stare down the camera in the second season this show so richly deserves. The fact that her at-bat doesn’t arrive is one of precious few disappointments in these 10 episodes, but nor does it stop her from turning in an emotionally rich performance that’s as funny and (if there’s any justice) star-making as Jack Black’s turn in the film.
As this review should make clear, it’s nearly impossible for anyone who’s seen the movie to watch this adaptation without making comparisons; indeed, the series trades on that nostalgia, reveling in the parallels and nods to its predecessor. The nostalgia is a feature, not a bug, tied not only to its fondness for Stephen Frears’ film and the performances of Cusack, Black, and others, but to a much larger longing for the hisses and pops of days gone by. Gentrification is a subtle but persistent theme; Simon remarks that his relationship with Rob hasn’t changed at all in many years; Rob briefly tries a new jacket before retreating to a faithful leather standby, saying the change “just wasn’t the vibe.” Even Cherise, a musician chasing a revolutionary sound, has a mile-long list of influences, many long since dead. The camera reflects this longing—memories are sun-tinged but crystal clear, while the present is somehow grittier, grimier, lit like the terrible bathroom in the dive bar you love.
The past is easy like Sunday morning; the present plods along, sometimes intruding like the sunlight at a brunch you didn’t want to go to, anyway. It’s the future that’s frightening. But for all its top five lists and potent flashbacks, “High Fidelity” was always a story about the future, about how you get to the point where you can move forward. Such things take time. If we’re lucky, this “High Fidelity” will get to take even more.