In the first few pages of Nick Hornby’s 1995 novel High Fidelity, Rob Fleming—the surly, music-obsessed protagonist and owner of a London record store—compiles a list of his top five greatest heartbreaks and mentally taunts his ex-girlfriend, Laura, that she hasn’t made the cut. Though he’s obviously pained about their recent breakup, he insists that the women from these prior relationships have left a greater mark on him. She should have gotten to him earlier, he says. “Those days are gone, and good fucking riddance to them; unhappiness really meant something back then.”
Unhappiness really meant something back then. The idea fuels Rob’s backward effort to contact the women on his list and mine them for insights about why he’s “doomed to be left” rather than to change any of his behavior. The novel had some elements of self-awareness and satire built into Rob’s terribleness, but a 2000 film starring John Cusack and directed by Stephen Frears boosted Rob further into the realm of beloved anti-hero. And a weird cultural nostalgia that mirrors Rob’s romanticization of the past has fixed High Fidelity as a cult favorite that offers a portrait of ’90s angst and so-called male complexity, despite the fact that the protagonist was, as Vice put it in 2018, “a sociopathic womanizer, a stalker ex, and a shitty boyfriend” who “created a hero for a generation of sociopathic ‘nice guys.’”
Nostalgia has lured us back to previous decades for content ideas, just in case there’s some detail we overlooked the first time around. So far, TV reboots have included everything from One Day at a Time to Dynasty to Sabrina the Teenage Witch—and perhaps it was only a matter of time before Rob was resurrected from his pile of dusty records and misery. Disney announced in 2018 that it was developing a series based on the film, with producers/writers Veronica West and Sarah Kucserka at the helm. The update would boast a few key differences: This would be the millennial take, with actress Zoë Kravitz playing a female version of Rob operating a vinyl shop in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. (Coincidentally, Kravitz’s mother, Lisa Bonet, had a role in the film as one of Rob’s love interests, the musician Marie De Salle.)
The show, which premiered on Hulu on Valentine’s Day, wrestles with what it wants to achieve via its gender flip. On the one hand, Kravitz’s charisma gives viewers a cooler character to root for—her Rob is selfish, but more stoic and self-sabotaging than purely reprehensible. The reboot breaks out of some of the original male-centered whiteness, and it invests time and care into a few characters beyond Rob. Still, it holds back and doesn’t follow through on its risks, focusing on style over substance and doing a bit too much to ensure that Rob stays likable. The creators also rely on bland rom-com tropes, such as a half-hearted love triangle, to make it through 10 glossy episodes. That’s a shame, because the show is bingeable, and it could have been enough to eclipse the earlier and more grating iterations of the source material.
Kravitz’s Rob kicks off the series by reciting her top five heartbreak list directly to the camera, something Cusack also did in the film to capture the book’s style of inner monologue. Viewers are immediately thrown into the end of her relationship with her boyfriend, Mac McCormack (Kingsley Ben-Adir). As Mac leaves their shared apartment, Kravitz breaks down into tears (there was no crying from Rob in the novel or the film). The episode picks up again a year later: Rob is approaching the split with sullen apathy, going through the motions at the record shop she runs with the help of Simon and Cherise—the 2020 answers to Rob’s previous sidekicks, Dick and Barry. The characters reflect far more diverse stories than High Fidelity previously allowed. Simon (David H. Holmes) doubles as Rob’s ex-boyfriend, who realized he was gay while dating her, and an episode is dedicated to his experience navigating the queer scene in New York. Da’Vine Joy Randolph’s bright, sardonic Cherise keeps the mood from getting too downcast in the shop between Simon’s reticence and Rob’s brooding. As Rob’s older brother, Rainbow Francks provides a window into how hard it is to commit, grow up, and settle down, all things that make Rob recoil.
Kravitz, who is also an executive producer on the show, balances edginess and vulnerability in her performance. As Rob, she tries to get over Mac by dating a musician named Liam (the male version of Marie) and a befuddling, puffer-vest-wearing new character named Clyde. He’s played with earnestness by Jake Lacy, and his nice-guy persona is meant as a foil to Rob’s mordant detachment. Unfortunately, his lacrosse bro looks are out of place next to Kravitz in such an intensely curated version of Brooklyn. Appearances are a big deal here: Kravitz called the four-time Oscar-winning costume designer Colleen Atwood directly to work on the ’90s-inspired outfits, and even the grungy record shop is bathed in romantic neon lighting. Clyde, a transplant from Colorado, could have perhaps helped the show say something tangible about gentrification, a topic that West and Kucserka have said they wanted to tackle, but he doesn’t—and the show’s nods at the issue get lost among all the sleek camera angles.
Rob’s forays into dating and her run-ins with Mac make up most of the action. The visits to past exes, which informed much of the book and the film, have been relegated to only one full episode and the tail end of another. Viewers meet former lovers like Kat Monroe, an over-the-top social media influencer whom Rob dated at one point. She tells Rob she’s been getting a lot of calls from another ex who want to unearth the past and that everyone “seems to be going through these ‘What does it all mean?’ trips.” Rob is indeed going through one of those trips, but the reboot is interested in where it takes her romantically. Though her love life makes for good television, it’s also compelling to see Rob navigating the vinyl world, which has mostly been the dominion of white men.
The writers unearth one moment from the book that involves Rob meeting a woman determined to sell her sleazy husband’s trove of “unicorn” records for $20. Rob discovers firsthand that the husband is awful, and yet she won’t buy the records out of integrity and a partial fear that one day someone will decide there’s music she doesn’t deserve. In the novel, the exchange was more about Rob feeling “desperately, painfully sorry” for a fellow “bad guy.” As good as the scene is in the show, the jackpot record collection underscores some uninspired musical choices. While many of the selections—including a copy of the Beatles’ Yesterday and Today with the banned bloody-baby cover and an original pressing of David Bowie’s The Man Who Sold the World—are undeniable classics, they’re outdated and align with what the white male version of Rob would have liked rather than the esoteric gems a former DJ in Brooklyn would be into today. Kravitz’s Rob also isn’t allowed the intense level of musical snobbery central to earlier versions. At one point, she looks ready to eviscerate Clyde and his basic taste for Fleetwood Mac, but instead she provides a nice and insightful defense of the band’s album Tusk.
This Rob has a moral center. She’s a mess, but she’s remorseful. She’s particularly guilty about Mac and reveals later in the series that she cheated on him just before they got engaged—events that are far more sanitized than what the male Rob did. (In the novel, he cheated on Laura when she was pregnant, which led her to get an abortion, then borrowed a “large sum” of money from her that he never paid back, and finally told her that he was “kind of sort of maybe looking around for someone else.”) A more self-aware Rob is able to show more personal growth: When she’s been a bad friend to Cherise, she offers a conciliatory gift; later, she tries to start over with Clyde after admitting her flaws to him (though that particular scene reads a bit forced, given how little she seemed to actually like him, and it slightly undermines her independence). While no one will miss the misogyny of the original character, the gender flip, in some ways, makes the female character a redemption of Rob. The changes beg the question of why she’s more apologetic and noble when, as a male, he was given space to be unabashedly idiosyncratic.
Elsewhere, the show does make good use of the specificity of our current times. An egotistical male protagonist has finally gone out of style, but the existentialism and dissatisfaction of early middle age is alive and well, particularly among a restless, economically frustrated generation. Discontent feels especially intense thanks to filtered images of supremely happy, smiling people on social media, and Kravitz’s Rob nails millennial gloominess and the habit of comparing oneself to others when she’s scrolling through Mac’s Instagram on her cracked phone in the masochistic hope of seeing pictures of his new girlfriend. However, despite the tendency to romanticize the ennui of the ’90s or exaggerate the despair of the Internet era, the series reinforces how the “What does it all mean?” thing that Kat mockingly calls out can look pretty similar across the decades.
In the book and the film, Laura and Rob get back together after a tragedy in what can be seen as a sad capitulation. This show is much more focused on making Rob learn from her mistakes, and an ambiguous ending is both a sign of some progress as well as a set-up for a potential second season. The decision to take Rob down the self-improvement route is a touch more hopeful and perhaps the biggest millennial marker of all.