The TV world is on the verge of Peak Fourth-Wall Break. As with any trend in storytelling devices, there are effective uses and there are gimmicky uses and there are uses that feel like a last-minute add-on. But what really makes the moments work where a character drops all pretense and looks right down the barrel of a camera depends on who’s doing it.
“High Fidelity” has Zoë Kravitz, and it’s one main reason why the new Hulu series, the latest adaptation of Nick Hornby’s 1995 novel, does more to earn that protagonist/audience connection than merely following in the footsteps of the 2000 Stephen Frears film. Kravitz takes the mantle of lovelorn record store owner dutifully reliving past romantic failures and anchors a new spin on a familiar story. Rather than have this part of the show feel staid and obligatory, her natural asides keep this 10-episode season a smooth, brisk exploration of what love and music can make people do.
Some of the “High Fidelity” hallmarks are there. Record store employees Cherise (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) and Simon (David H. Holmes) craft their own Top 5 lists, even after Kravitz’s Rob has given the audience a tour of her worst breakups in a similar fashion. It’s the ends to which that pillar of the book and the movie are used here that make this “High Fidelity” stand as its own entity.
There’s the attempt to put degrees on a scale that can accommodate the problematic sides of music stars across multiple decades. There’s the Instagram trawling that complicates feelings for exes that John Cusack’s Rob could never have anticipated. Jumping time zones from Chicago, Kravitz leads “High Fidelity” through Crown Heights, highlighting many of the ways that the Brooklyn neighborhood outside her shop’s walls is far from a monolith.
Gliding across city streets, through back rooms at music venues and in and out of any number of apartment living rooms, “High Fidelity” (like Rob, you could argue) never feels content to stick in one place for too long. The show is able to incorporate both the lived-in and the manufactured parts of what she encounters, the handcrafted vintage and the glossy mass-produced approximations. That also manifests itself in the series’ dense and vast collection of source music, a soundtrack that ranges from sing-along standards to crate-dug cues with the power to birth fandoms within few seconds.
And even as it takes advantage of living inside Rob’s frame of reference, the length of the season gives creators Sarah Kucserka and Veronica West the chance to follow the other people in Rob’s immediate vicinity. For them, life doesn’t end or begin at the front door of Championship Vinyl. Holmes delightfully underplays Simon, Rob’s closest confidant and occasional designated “snap out of it” lieutenant. Whenever one of Rob’s handful of romantic ghosts breaches the confines of the record store — be it lingering source of heartbreak Mac (Kingsley Ben-Adir) or the more square newcomer nice guy Clyde (Jake Lacy) — that melding of the love and friend world brings its own unique energy.
But as much as the transitory characters make their own impressions, get ready for a significant portion of “High Fidelity” praise to be sent Randolph’s way. When Cherise emerges as a notable force in the store, with her own ambitions outside of it, she becomes a vital, indispensable piece of the “High Fidelity” puzzle. Just as Kravitz inspires instant rapport with audiences she can’t see, Randolph is the much-needed lightning bolt that comes in and shakes the status quo whenever time spent at Championship threatens to spin its wheels.
Together, this core group navigates the band-based patter quickly and playfully enough that it doesn’t feel suffocating. It may feel at first like the show is trying to prove its own music fan bona fides as much as its characters are, but there’s an effortless groove that Kravitz, Holmes, and Randolph find as a trio almost instantly. Any frustration that comes from them as a unit derives solely from any one character not fulfilling their full potential or finding out that the entirety of the show isn’t just about these three.
“High Fidelity” occasionally has a wandering feel to it. Most of the season’s middle section, with her drifting through relationships past and present (and maybe future?) takes on that same ambling feel that Rob herself is expressing. (One chapter mostly spent on an uptown errand feels much closer in spirit to “High Maintenance” than Hornby.) It’s a pace that some viewers might rebel against, but this is Rob’s show. It’s mirroring whatever speed she’s operating on at any given point of the story.
So for a series that so often operates in tandem with the music playing in the background, “High Fidelity” has a consistent rhythm that’s flexible enough to bend with the demands of each passing episode. Viewers expecting a tight, compact album might be pleasantly surprised to see this season take on a more open-ended Spotify playlist feel, designed to keep playing and be enjoyed knowing that the end is still far in the future. At times, it’s an eclectic mix of ideas and execution, but there’s a great amount of satisfaction in just letting it all wash over you.
“High Fidelity” is now available to stream on Hulu.