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Karla Peterson: Hulu's gender-flipped 'High Fidelity' is a cover version with its own special groove

Karla Peterson, The San Diego Union-Tribune on

Published in Entertainment News

When I heard that Hulu was turning Nick Hornby's classic music-geek novel "High Fidelity" into a series, my brain made an awful screeching noise not unlike the sound of a record-player needle skidding off a fresh piece of vinyl. If that sound had accompanying lyrics, they would boil down to a big, whiny, "Why?????"

Why take a third swing at a hilarious, pretty-much perfect book that has already been turned into a pretty terrific movie and a not-at-all-terrific musical? Why change the hero, a relationship-challenged record-store owner named Rob, into a female record store owner who is also relationship-challenged and also named Rob? Why would Hulu do this? Why would anybody?

Well, if you regretted freaking out when Dylan went electric or when Taylor Swift went full-on-pop, then you know that one of the true joys of being a music fan is allowing an artist to prove you wrong. And just as Dylan's "Bringing It All Back Home" and Swift's "1989" shut the doubters down with glorious hooks and game-changing feedback, Hulu's version of "High Fidelity" has made a happy convert out of me.

Debuting on Valentine's Day, Hulu's 10-episode series stars Zoe Kravitz as Rob (short for "Robin," which no one calls her), the owner of a vinyl-only record store in Brooklyn, N.Y. Like the 1995 novel version of Rob (whose store was in London), the 2000 movie version played by John Cusack (whose store was in Chicago) and the extremely short-lived 2006 Broadway musical Rob, Kravitz's Rob is a music geek. Make that an extreme music geek, the kind whose obsessive search for the obliterating love promised by their favorite songs has done a major number on their real-world romantic life.

"What came first -- the music or the misery?" the book version of Rob muses, as he considers his deep attachment to the exquisitely painful "Love Hurts," "She's Gone" and other tears-in-your-beer classics. "Did I listen to music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to music? Do all those records turn you into a melancholy person?"

When we meet TV Rob, she is also surveying the wreckage of her love life and -- in the manner of the Robs before her -- turning her travails into a list. In this case, it's her Top Five Heartbreaks, which will give Rob fodder for chain-smoking and soul-searching while giving viewers a glimpse into Rob's restless, arrested-development heart.

"Why do I never get any better?" Rob wonders after yet another liaison bites the dust. "What's wrong with me? Seriously, I need to know."

Answering this question involves revisiting the past, as Rob checks in on her old flames to find out why she can't make a good (or even not-so-good) thing last. Since TV Rob is not a man with a serious Peter Pan complex and the TV "High Fidelity" was not written by the hilarious and merciless Nick Hornby, this small-screen journey into the center of the arrested-development heartbreak universe is not quite the forensic deep-dive you get from the book. It will not make your knees buckle with its wit and insight, but like a lot of second or third loves, this "High Fidelity" has its own charms.

At the top of its hit list, you have Kravitz, who plays Rob with both the rock-star charisma you'd expect and an anxious vulnerability that is totally disarming. Despite her supermodel cheekbones and astounding ability to carry off even the rattiest, most unflattering hipster cardigan, Kravitz's Rob is a smart, funny and thoroughly relatable mess. By the end of the first episode, you will want to meet Kravitz's Rob for a drink, and then you will tell her she really needs to stop smoking.

 

Second on the list, we have Rob's friends and employees, Simon and Cherise. Simon (played by David H. Holmes) is a less milquetoasty version of the timid Dick, who was played by Todd Louiso in the movie. The fact that Simon is gay and used to be Rob's boyfriend gives their friendship a warmth and depth that pays off nicely in later episodes. Cherise (the unstoppable Da'Vine Joy Randolph) is the female version of the larger-than-life Barry, played in the movie by human blowtorch Jack Black. Randolph more than holds her own on the exuberance front.

The three actors have a real lived-in chemistry, and eavesdropping on their conversations about the merits (or not) of Dexy's Midnight Runners' "Come On Eileen" and the current ethical challenges of selling Michael Jackson albums is a delight that grows the longer you are in their company.

Throw in the audio joys of an expertly curated soundtrack that makes room for Paul McCartney and Wings, Ann Peebles and Frank Ocean, along with the rare thrill of watching a female character amble comfortably through the boys' club of rock geekdom, and you have a TV show that offers the enveloping rewards of a double album. It is in no rush to get where it's going, and the groove is so good, you won't be either.

It's hard to fall in love with a TV show when the book it is based on has stolen your heart already. But I enjoyed hanging out with Kravitz and her squad so much, I am willing to say that Hulu's "High Fidelity" and I are now friends with benefits.

The pleasure is all mine.

(c)2020 The San Diego Union-Tribune

Visit The San Diego Union-Tribune at www.sandiegouniontribune.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

 

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