For many, both versions of High Fidelity—the 1995 novel penned by Nick Hornby and the 2000 movie starring a single-jacket-owning John Cusack—are cult classics. They’re texts that get at the heart of what it’s like to be a person who is very into vinyl records if the only kind of person who can be very into vinyl records is a straight white man. That has been the portrait of the record-collecting nerd ever since the music-geek archetype fastened itself to pop culture. In American Splendor, it’s Harvey Pekar, played by Paul Giamatti; in Ghost World, it’s Steve Buscemi’s Seymour, and so on. On its surface, a gender-swapped reboot of High Fidelity, the new Hulu series starring the impossibly cool Zoë Kravitz, seemed to challenge that notion. Now that the 10-episode season has premiered, it’s clear that any hopeful rewriting was purely cosmetic. The record-collecting manchild trope remains.
Women of color can, of course, own record stores and be self-involved and treat exes like characters in their story instead of autonomous beings, just like the stunted men of High Fidelity past. And if the Hulu incarnation managed to make that clear, it would’ve become the rare example of why gender-swapped reboots should exist: to highlight how people who aren’t men exist in traditionally male-dominated spaces. This remake doesn’t do that. Instead, Kravitz’s talents are squandered by a script that treats identity like a superficial detail used to modernize an archaic plot, the same way the show too plainly replaces mixtapes with Spotify playlists. The storyline is identical to the originals, and for that reason, it mostly fails to charm.
In the movie, Rob Gordon (Cusack) is a self-pitying record store owner in Chicago who’s deeply obsessed with list-making. His friends work in his store: the soft-spoken, Stiff Little Fingers-loving Dick (Todd Louiso) and the fun, often inappropriate Barry (Jack Black). Rob spends the duration of the film hunting down ex-girlfriends to confront them about the demise of their relationship, in the order of each heartbreak’s intensity—his “Desert Island Top 5 All-Time Most Memorable Heartbreaks.” But his pseudo-self-improvement journey is really an exercise in entitlement that allows him to believe his ex-girlfriends owe him anything, especially after he’s ranked them.
In the Hulu version, the details are the same, with a few updates. Zoë Kravitz is Robin Brooks (referred to as Rob, like Rob Gordon), a self-pitying record store owner in New York who’s also deeply obsessed with list-making. Her “Dick” is Simon (played by David H. Holmes), one of her former heartbreaks and a recently out gay man. Her “Barry” is Cherise (Da’Vine Joy Randolph). Rob’s heartbreaks are mostly with men, but there is one woman thrown in for good measure, an Instagram influencer parody of the character Charlie (Catherine Zeta-Jones) in the original.
It should be mentioned that unlike the 2000 movie, Rob’s list-making obsession is mostly shoe-horned in, instead of becoming a narrative device that dictates plot. Here, it lacks believability, even if it’s with good reason. The incessant need to categorize taste is what men historically do: canons have existed to immortalize and elevate the great work of men, pushing other identities to the margins. Zoë Kravitz’s Rob doesn’t present like a character who would feel the same need, especially when it’s well-established that her musical interests aren’t limited by genre or generation; and in the past, High Fidelity came across as late-’90s rock-oriented. She avoids categorization in her personal life, and yet in some moments, is consumed by the need for it.
I wish I could say the similarities start and stop there, but that’s not the case. Hulu’s High Fidelity borrows heavily from the 2000 movie, including direct quotes in dialogue that stop just short of clichéd: “What came first, the music or the misery?” References to funktronica outfit Beta Band endure, but the infamous “Beta Band scene” is remade with the much more “diverse” example of Love, Loss and Autotune by Swamp Dogg. The most unattractive feature of the film was the casual misogyny (womanizing is prevalent in the book, as well), and that inches its ugly head into the Hulu version, too. If a reboot is meant to contemporize a beloved story, cutting out the name-calling and slut-shaming would’ve been an easy way in. The show doesn’t even do that: Rob routinely refers to ex-girlfriends and her ex-friends’ new girlfriends as “bitches,” only once expressing remorse.
Worst yet, High Fidelity fails to dive into the experience of being a woman who is very into both music and record-collecting (as anyone who is into either will tell you, these are two distinct and different pastimes. One is about ownership; the other, art.) The closest moment arrives in Episode 5 when Rob is faced with an unexpected quandary: a rich, vengeful woman (Parker Posey) attempts to sell her unfaithful husband’s record collection full of rarities to Rob for a measly $20. Rob decides that she can’t accept such an insane offer unless she verifies that the man is as awful as his wife suggests. So she meets him at the famed Bemelmans Bar in the Carlyle Hotel, where he talks at her and her current love interest Clyde (Jake Lacy), imprecisely dropping facts about popular music. Rob tries to jump in a few times and he completely ignores her, most notably when she attempts to correct him about a topic she is more knowledgable about. If she owns a record store, surely her day-to-day existence would be bombarded with interactions like this: perusing the WFMU record fair and being stopped by men to ask where her boyfriend is, or questioned why she’s there in the first place when no women seem to be; harassed by male costumers who simply don’t trust her expertise; questioned in the merch line about her knowledge on a given niche genre, so on and so forth. In the end, Rob opts not to buy the terrible man’s collection. Unable to articulate why, Clyde suggests that she is worried that one day her records, too, could be taken away.
Still, Hulu’s High Fidelity does have some ostensible allure. Questlove provided the soundtrack, guaranteeing the show’s music supervision would be immaculate. It’s thrilling to see Kravitz play the lead in a new version of a story her mom (Lisa Bonet) played a love interest in two decades prior, and it’s rewarding to see animated music debate take place in a record store environment that’s not just white men. But any pleasures are surface-level. Settling for these images in an otherwise tokenizing tale isn’t enough to invest in the show.
This is not a story about music nerds, though. (If it were, Robin would not keep her records laying horizontally. Even novices know that’s an easy way to warp them.) Fanaticism is merely the setting. High Fidelity is about a heartbroken geek whose view of the world is so myopic and self-involved, it can only operate through lists and facts. In this gender-swapped version, like all gender-swapped reboots, a woman protagonist is meant to retell a man’s story as if it is her own instead of being given the space to tell hers.