“High Fidelity,” the 1995 Nick Hornby novel that became a 2000 John Cusack movie, a failed 2006 Broadway musical, and, now, a TV series, has good bones. It’s about a lovelorn record-store owner in the city, looking for self-awareness by analyzing old love affairs, passionate about making best-of lists. The story has a sturdy countdown structure, lots of back story, an obsession with romance, earned character transformation, and, so critical in such a vinyl-centric setting, precise needle drops.
And the spine of “High Fidelity” is this: Ultimately, it’s a paean to the intimate and profound relationship people have with the culture they love — in this case, rock ’n’ roll. The characters have created themselves and found meaning in their lives through music. When they talk and argue about albums and acts — the history of Fleetwood Mac, long Phish jams, a rare David Bowie album — they’re revealing themselves.
“High Fidelity” the TV series is available on Friday on Hulu, and it’s a slow-growing pleasure that does justice to them bones. The big twist in this Brooklyn-set iteration, created by Sarah Kucserka and Veronica West, is that the lead character is a woman of color, Rob (short for Robin), and she’s played by Zoë Kravitz. The switch isn’t just a gimmick; it gives the show a renewed sense of purpose, as it undoes old gender and race clichés that have always made rock into a white male domain. Kravitz’s Rob is nothing if not an encyclopedic music geek, while a man she’s seeing, Clyde (Jake Lacy), decidedly is not (watch her mouth “help me” when he puts on the Grateful Dead in his car). But in one beautifully painful scene, a guy they’re having a drink with (Jeffrey Nordling) refuses even to look at Rob as he goes on and on about his favorite LPs to Clyde, his sexism as flagrant as his phallic ponytail.
Before I continue to praise the show, however, I do have an important caveat. I did not like the first few episodes of the 10-episode season, and I was preparing to give “High Fidelity” a very mixed review. Rob is relentlessly sour and self-absorbed at first, and her fixation on her love life is exhausting, as is her bad behavior toward her dates and her smug musical opinions. She speaks directly to the camera (like Cusack) with a low-key narcissism that is trying. She’s that person whose drama always seems to suck up all the air in the room, and it was hard to imagine watching a whole series with her as the lead. Also, Rob’s store workers — Da’Vine Joy Randolph’s Cherise and David H. Holmes’s Simon — are likable music fanatics from the start, but the three seem to be forcing their familiarity at first. And Cherise (the equivalent of Jack Black’s character in the movie) and Simon seem too willing to tolerate and even support Rob’s insufferability.
But by episode five, which features Parker Posey as a wealthy Manhattan woman hoping to sell a record collection to Rob (which was in the book, but not the movie), our heroine becomes quite bearable and engaging. I’m not sure if the writers and Kravitz are following Rob’s arc out of misery, or if they recognized that she was difficult company over the long run, but her new lighter demeanor — and the writers’ willingness to follow stories outside of Rob’s — rescue the show from terminal irritation. Even the music choices improve. At the same time, Kravitz’s chemistry with Randolph and Holmes takes off, and, as they confront and tease store customers and debate whether or not to sell a Michael Jackson album, it becomes the best part of the show. Randolph, whose Cherise is a wannabe musician and a poignantly lonely extrovert, is an expert scene-stealer, and Holmes, whose Simon is gay and gets his own episode late in the season, is the show’s soft heart.
The story opens with Rob soul-searching after the end of her relationship with Mac (Kingsley Ben-Adir), and looking back at what doomed her five most important exes (one of whom is a woman). At the same time, she is kinda-sorta seeing nice guy Clyde, who sees the good person lurking beyond her many faults. Will she keep making the same mistakes — Rob always has one foot out the door — or learn from them? After the rocky first half of the season, Kravitz becomes a fine lead, with a winning mixture of hipness, sadness, and loyalty. She is a woman who can be a creep — but because she knows it, she radiates the possibility that she can change. Chill, quietly charismatic, she ultimately makes for a great hang.
Starring: Zoë Kravitz, Jake Lacy, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, David Holmes, Kingsley Ben-Adir. On Hulu. The first season is available Friday.