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Review: Hulu’s ‘High Fidelity’ Is a Cool Cover, but It Misses Some Notes

“High Fidelity,” beginning Friday on Hulu, is a terrifically cool show that gets awfully far on vibes alone, thanks in large part to a mesmerizing lead performance from Zoë Kravitz. She’s so good, in fact, that it’s almost impossible to believe she can’t find someone to love her exactly as-is. I’d say “warts and all,” but come on: Those are artful tattoos and elegant beauty marks.

Kravitz stars as Rob, the same list-making record store owner first seen in Nick Hornby’s novel and later played by John Cusack in the 2000 movie. The role is gender-swapped here, and Kravitz’s Rob (short for Robyn in this version) has also had at least one same-sex relationship. She smokes weed often and cigarettes constantly; her drink is a whiskey neat or bodega coffee; she dresses like Kramer on “Seinfeld” with the addition of sheer bras; and she runs a scrappy record store in Brooklyn. She’s also nursing a broken heart: Her fiancé broke up with her about a year ago, and she’s still spiraling, whether she admits it or not.

As in the book and movie, Rob embarks on quest of ostensible self-discovery by getting in touch with partners responsible for her “desert-island, all-time Top 5 most memorable heartbreaks,” though she doesn’t start this exact project until the end of Episode 3. No one from her past seems remotely on her level, and even her new love interest, Clyde (Jake Lacy, perhaps ringing more “Girls” bells than the show would want), seems hokey in comparison.

Typically one should not care if an adaptation hews closely to its source material, but the references are so overt here, and self-conscious, that they bear mentioning. Kravitz’s mother, Lisa Bonet, played one of Cusack’s love interests in the movie, a sexy musician gazed upon with utter reverence. The show, adapted for television by Sarah Kucserka and Veronica West, includes plenty of callbacks to the book and movie: verbatim lines, soundtrack choices (hello, Beta Band), character names, a mopey sweater and no doubt other winks I missed. Many of these direct ports work shockingly well, like seeing a great revival of a beloved play.

But that makes the differences glaring, too. Movie Rob offers to put out a record for the naughty teens who steal from his store; TV Rob casually offers to sell the record in her store should her naughty teens ever make one. It’s a less emotional, less interesting option, a path the TV show takes a few times.

I get that the main character is afraid to commit, but her show seems afraid to commit, too. At 10 episodes, it still feels superficial — beautiful, certainly, with an aesthetic that’s glowy but never sweaty, but vague. The wisdom, or not, of “High Fidelity” claims that what you like is more important than what you are like. But when asked about her taste, Rob here declares that she just likes “good music.” David Bowie and Mexican food are both great, but neither signifies esoteric connoisseurship, and Rob’s obvious list of Top 5 villains (Hannibal Lecter, et al.) could have come from a middle-aged white bro rather than from a 29-year-old biracial, bisexual funky Brooklynite.

The show flexes its specificity with other characters, though, especially Simon (David H. Holmes), Rob’s employee and gay ex-boyfriend. He gets his own episode, in which he relives his Top 5 heartbreaks, and it’s the episode with by far the most depth and conflict. I wish Rob’s other sidekick, Cherise (Da’Vine Joy Randolph, in basically the Jack Black role), had her own episode, too.

Thanks to Kravitz’s performance, I still cared tremendously about Rob and her well being. She possesses that alluring hot-and-cold quality that can be so addictive before you know better, alternating between self-flagellating confessions and a generalized misanthropic snobbery. But while that defines Robs in every iteration, it’s different here, less because of gender and race — though, you know, that too — than because of era.

Making a Spotify playlist is not the same as making a mixtape, and the obsessive ranking of things means less in 2020 than it did 20 or 30 years ago. Not only have a million blogs spawned a billion listicles, and thus everything has already been ranked (some by yours truly!), but we also are never more than a few clicks away from an infinite library. Amassing a record collection might mean that you love music. It also means you really love stuff, which is something different.

Even though this “High Fidelity” does not seem connected to music qua music, it succeeds at recognizing and reveling in the joys of certainty and domain. When Rob schools a jerky record collector about the year a Wings album came out, it’s less about 1976 than about the fortifying thrill of righteousness. The show carries its ample baggage easily because it is so sure of its pleasures, of how special it is to find anything — song, movie, sandwich, spouse — and to know that it is so, so good.

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