The mere existence of Hulu’s High Fidelity remake is, on a level, perplexing. The 10-episode series developed by TV vets Veronica West and Sarah Kucserka (Hart Of Dixie, GCB) marks the third time that Nick Hornby’s 1995 novel has been adapted for another medium. If you missed the 2006 Broadway musical’s extremely short-lived run (13 performances and 18 previews in total), you’re likely familiar with Stephen Frears’ quasi-iconic 2000 film adaptation, which featured John Cusack as lovesick record store proprietor Rob.
Or maybe you’re not: We’re at a temporal point in popular culture where people born after 9/11 are getting their drivers’ licenses, so it makes a lick of sense to expect that a film — undoubtedly a wider entrance point to Hornby’s self-centered yarn than the book itself — preoccupied with mixtape-making and Sigue Sigue Sputnik namedrops has faded from the general public consciousness. Furthermore, everything gets remade, rebooted, or re-envisioned these days, a trend that’s persisted even as the majority of said remakes, reboots, and re-envisions barely move the critical or commercial needle.
When it comes to Hornby’s oeuvre, perhaps we should be surprised it took this long to begin with. A mere decade after his About A Boy was adapted into a massively successful Hugh Grant-starring film, the 1998 novel also became a NBC sitcom that ran for two seasons starting in 2014. But this particular High Fidelity, which premieres tomorrow, attempts to present itself as a much different beast than its predecessors. For one, the property has been gender-flipped Ghostbusters-style, with Zoë Kravitz as Rob and Rob’s formerly-cishet and white coworkers replaced by a black woman (Da’Vine Joy Randolph, her Cherise standing in for Jack Black’s Barry) and a gay man (David Holmes as Simon, in place of the film’s Stiff Little Fingers-loving Dick).
Instead of the story’s previous trappings of London and Chicago, this High Fidelity’s largely situated in Brooklyn, with locale-specific haunts like Greenpoint club Good Room and Crown Heights Caribbean restaurant Glady’s as scene-specific settings. Mixtapes have been replaced with streaming-service playlists; Nipsey Hussle albums and entire racks dedicated to Frankie Cosmos’ discography (yes, really) are easily spotted in Rob’s record store; there are heated discussions about the comparative legacies of Michael Jackson and Trump-era Kanye West. More often than not, these efforts at contemporaneousness come across as aggressive and forced: An unintentional laugh line arrives when Simon compares a new artist to “Blonde-era Frank Ocean,” namechecking an “era” that’s less than four years old and not yet completed.
When sending screeners, a Hulu rep asked that any advance coverage of the show not reveal any “surprising plots/spoilers” featured in the remake. It’s a humorous request, since the majority of High Fidelity’s narrative details are ripped straight from the book and/or film. If you’ve read or watched this story before, there’s almost nothing new for you here. Unlike last year’s dismal Hulu reboot Four Weddings And A Funeral, High Fidelity isn’t billed as a limited series, and it’s not a spoiler to point out its resulting open-ended conclusion — the point in which it strays most from the source material. Beyond that, the act of personal “top-five” list-making — central to every previous High Fidelity — is heavily downplayed aside from a few shoehorned lines of dialogue, to the point where the cast themselves have expressed their personal distaste for the concept in promo.
As someone who somehow survived the last decade while writing about music for a living, this de-emphasis paired with High Fidelity’s gender-flipped conceit reminded me of critic (and, full disclosure, former Pitchfork coworker) Lindsay Zoladz’s 2012 Tumblr post that featured four of her “lady internet friends” explaining why they didn’t participate in Pitchfork’s People’s List, a century-so-far-list audience-interactive project in which only 12% of the participants identified as female. (The other 88% identified as male; as Zoladz notes in her post, there was no non-binary option provided.)
“I absolutely despise musical discussions with men,” one of the four participants stated. Another opined that making such a list involves traits that include “enough self-esteem to believe your choices are correct” and “the fastidious patience to actually complete a task that is based mainly in narcissism,” which “men are more apt to have all of.”
“The last thing I ever want to do is talk about music with someone,” my wife (a lapsed music writer herself) said while watching what she could stomach of High Fidelity with me. Despite a smattering of pop-cultural conversations littered throughout the season, the overall departure from the book and film’s endless rank-a-palooza seemingly reflects some sort of progressivism questionably earned by the show’s gender-specific refocus.
But the mere existence of this interpretation of High Fidelity rejects such notions. A message central to the film and book is abandoning the past in favor of moving forward with the present — less time hiding in record stacks, more time engaging with the here and now, whether it be DJing for crowds or being a more faithful and committed partner. It’s an anti-nostalgic lesson, one that seems to be undone by the very nostalgic exercise of exhuming High Fidelity yet again for the streaming generation. Really, Hornby — who carries production credits on the TV show — is engaging with legacy management here, to a point approaching self-erasure.
In 2020, there’s little about the film or book versions of High Fidelity that doesn’t carry the stink of chauvinism, and their subsequent portrayals of Rob’s moral character have aged like warm milk. Kravitz’s Rob is still a nerd, and maybe a little bit of an asshole, but the gender-flipped conceit itself acts as a sort of faux-progressive safeguard in terms of elevating the source material and shielding past iterations — the book in particular now reads more like an MRA tract than a charming rom-com tale — from renewed scrutiny. It’s dangerous and culturally irresponsible, akin to (to borrow a talking point from the show itself) removing MJ from the entirety of Off The Wall so as not to sully Quincy Jones’ contributions and prompting an existential query that should nag at the cerebellum of every pop-culture obsessive: If we’re constantly revising the past, how are we supposed to learn from it at all?
High Fidelity premieres on Hulu on 2/14.