Going into the first episode of Hulu’s new adaptation of High Fidelity, viewers can be excused for feeling a little skeptical. A film adaptation of Nick Hornby’s 1995 novel of the same name is already out there, and though its gender politics and spirited defense of overzealous cultural gatekeeping have aged poorly, it still has charms enough for this Generation X music nerd. And while maybe nobody was clamoring for another High Fidelity adaptation, by updating the setting (to present-day Crown Heights, Brooklyn) and the protagonist’s gender and race (a young biracial Black woman, still named Rob, now played by Zoë Kravitz), viewers are treated to a lively, fresh take on both the novel and film. What worked in the movie (Rob’s direct address to the camera; giving Rob permission to be both cluelessly self-absorbed yet fundamentally appealing; an abundance of nerdy and amusing cultural banter; wide-ranging, high-quality musical selections) all works very well here, too.
Best of all, by retaining some of the film’s best elements while centering a young Black woman’s experiences, showrunners Veronica West and Sarah Kucserka have widened the scope of High Fidelity’s potential audience. Rob’s fourth-wall breaking is a stylistic choice from the film that’s now more immediately reminiscent of Fleabag, whose main character is a bit of a mess in a lot of the same ways Rob is. What a great age for messy female protagonists! I do think it’s a mistake for Hulu to drop the entire first season on viewers all at once, as the pieces are in place here for a deeply satisfying slow burn over a ten-week run. I also know that viewers who gulp it all down over a couple of evenings won’t be sorry they did.
“Top Five Heartbreaks” moves back and forth through time to ground us in both Rob’s current reality — she’s very tentatively navigating a potential new relationship with Clyde (Jake Lacy), a climbing gym member who’s recently moved to New York — and in her disastrous romantic backstory. This list-lover wants us to know all about the five worst, most formative heartbreaks of her life to date, so let’s dive in!
Heartbreak No. 1: In a flashback, we see cute little middle-schooler Rob reading Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut. Kevin Bannister rolls up and asks her what she’s listening to, so she lies that she’s listening to Weezer, because all white dudes love Weezer, but Frank Zappa, who she’s really listening to, requires an explanation. Truth hurts, boys! Rob and Kevin’s three-day interlude of after-school smooching comes to a screeching halt when she sees Kevin kissing Hannah Shepherd on their bench. In this scene, Rob is wearing a Check Your Head–era Beastie Boys T-shirt, and when we shift back to the present, she’s in a Licensed to Ill–era Beastie Boys T-shirt, giving us a strong visual reminder that this is a story about the unreliable slipperiness of memory and the stories we tell ourselves. Sure, there were 13-year-olds in the early 2000s reading Vonnegut and loving Zappa and the Beasties, but were there, though? Who wouldn’t, when retelling a mortifying story about themselves, want to sprinkle just a pinch of coolness dust on themselves to ease the pain? We’ll see how Kevin’s memory stacks up against Rob’s soon enough.
Heartbreak No. 2 is Kat Monroe, a very cool lady-lover; we quickly see Kat and Rob making out on the dance floor, while Rob voiceovers that Kat was too cool for her. The idea that anyone embodied by Zoë Kravitz, particularly the Zoë Kravitz wearing a very severely turtlenecked black high-grade pleather ensemble for this scene, is less cool than literally any human currently alive beggars belief a tad, but it’s cute to see her looking a bit out of her depth as a walking heart-eyes emoji. Kat’s sweeping pronouncements about the horrors of Brutalism establish her as a true monster, so when she dumps Rob for someone more her type (“Tall. Blonde. Very white.”), it’s not a surprise. Hearing Kravitz’s Rob yell “KAT YOU FUCKING BITCH LET’S WORK IT OUT” in the pouring rain is plaintive and sympathetic in a way that John Cusack doing the same to Catherine Zeta-Jones in the film decidedly was not.
Rob’s sad career trajectory, stumbling into buying this struggling record shop (with what money?, one reasonably wonders) and dropping out of college and having no life plan beyond that leads us to Heartbreak No. 3, with Simon (David H. Holmes). She describes her attraction to Simon as being a true match with him, based on his recognition of the obscure British band The Radio Stars during one of her DJ sets. The show puts into Simon’s mouth the book’s famous and understandable, if completely wrongheaded, theory of relationships: That the things you like are more important than what you are like. Rob agrees with this readily enough and thinks that their ideological alignment will carry their relationship through, but she quickly sees it won’t, through the smudged glass of the laundromat where Simon is clearly getting the digits of a handsome fellow laundry-doer. The jig being fully up, Rob and Simon hug it out on the subway platform, with present-day Rob summing up, “and that was the end of that.”
Well, not exactly: Simon went from being her boyfriend to her employee. Yes, he works at Rob’s all-vinyl record store, along with Cherise (an instantly iconic performance by Dolemite Is My Name breakout Da’Vine Joy Randolph). The chemistry among these three music nerds is effervescent, with an irresistible Squabbling Yet Loving Siblings Energy. Randolph’s performance is so assured and crisply hilarious that she threatens to steal every scene she’s in, while Holmes re-centers every scene by making Simon a keen, patient observer who never lets Cherise get too carried away by her soaring musical erudition. They both keep a surreptitiously loving eye on Rob’s emotional temperature.
Let’s pause here to acknowledge what a treat it is to watch a show where the women’s obsession-level expertise in their field has also rendered them lightly insufferable and unfit for conversation with normals. Cherise issues a withering flirtation-rebuke of a customer using Shazam to identify a song instead of asking one of the knowledgeable shop staff to identify it, while on her first date with Clyde, Rob rushes headlong into a mini-dissertation on preferring Tusk to Rumours. It’s lovely to feel so seen and understood while also being burned to ash.
Back to Rob’s doomed romances, Heartbreak No. 4 was Justin, a stand-up comic with appalling taste in music. Their relationship was entirely based on sneaking around, and once his girlfriend found out, there was no reason to stay together. Rob closes out this one with the wise reflection, “In retrospect, we were both assholes.”
Heartbreak No. 5 is, of course, Mac. Rob’s brother, Cam, introduced them, resulting in “fireworks, sparks, the whole thing.” Their relationship is very swoony and seems rock solid in this flashback, but Rob insists that she was “completely out of [her] depth” and was left so heartbroken by Mac moving to London without her that she’s resolved never to let herself get so vulnerable in romance again. At this stage, we don’t get to see yet what put Rob so out of her depth with Mac, who so far just seems dreamily handsome and like a person with goals that Rob can’t join him in pursuing.
Back in the present, Clyde the gym climber is back, having unintentionally ghosted Rob after their better-than-anticipated date the night before. By way of apology, he’s brought her takeout French toast from his favorite local diner, leading to some flirtation on the steps to Rob’s building, which in turn leads to … Rob, eating the French toast alone in her apartment and wondering aloud, “Why did I just act like suuuuuch a dick?” Well. There’s a reason for that. Mac is back in town.
See, the previous evening, Rob very unexpectedly bumped into Mac on her way to meet Clyde. As Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon” plays, Rob and Mac awkwardly catch up within view of a row of red Chinese lanterns. Illuminated, they look like a bunch of pink moons, and if you can resist that clever little touch, you’re a stronger person than I. Mac clearly still has feelings for Rob, and she for him: if the world were ending, Rob would choose to spend the last hours of earthly existence with Mac, whose eyes, for the record, are very soft and beautiful.
As thunder rumbles in and Rob acknowledges that the whole situation with Mac and her not being remotely over him is a gigantic, unavoidable mess, the episode closes with one final perfect musical cue, Ann Peebles’s “I Can’t Stand the Rain,” and Rob smokes one more of the cigarettes she also can’t quit.
1) Questlove appears in the opening credits as the series’ executive music producer! Between him and the show’s full music department of three supervisors and an editor, the official playlist is going to be good.
2) Every adaptation of High Fidelity has a strong sense of place. This time it’s all about New York, highlighted visually for us by an oversize Wu-Tang Clan logo poster, another of a delightedly grinning Notorious B.I.G. by the shop cash register, and Rob’s two Beastie Boys T-shirts.
3) Musical cue of the episode goes to the unexpected appearance of “Come on Eileen” by Dexy’s Midnight Runners on Cherise’s special Monday Morning Playlist (it’s Tuesday, but time is a construct). It is indeed dope as shit!