MAY 12, 2020
In the 1994 film Reality Bites, the answering machine of bad boy Troy (Ethan Hawke) greets every caller with: “At the beep, please leave your name, number, and a brief justification for the ontological necessity of modern man’s existential dilemma, and we’ll get back to you.” More than 25 years later, the new existential dilemma is that we live in a modern world where some people don’t even remember answering machines. For younger generations, the answering machine is as distant a device as the Gutenberg press or the cotton gin, accessible only through reruns of Friends and Seinfeld. If archetypal Gen-X’ers filled their homes with VHS tapes and cassettes, and stereotypical Gen-Z’ers are glued to their cell phones, Millennials are stranded in the media mire. (Full disclosure: I was born in 1985, and, like Allen Ginsberg, I too have seen the best of my generation move back in with their parents.) Do millennials stream or watch live television? Are millennials the target audience for contemporary TV or are they the ideal target for its satirical gaze? It depends on who you ask. With its recent original programming including Dollface, Shrill, and Ramy, the streaming portal Hulu seems to be addressing the Millennial stuck in the middle — but what is it saying to us? What does television for Millennials look like?
Hulu’s High Fidelity, which debuted last month, is about intermediality, both in terms of academic conversations around intertwining media formations and the affective experience of being stuck between stages or demographics (youth and adulthood, Gen X’ers and Gen Z’ers). These two are not unrelated, the former mapping onto the latter as we grow up with — and outgrow — our beloved personal technologies. Many Millennials remember a time before home internet, as the most privileged, and the nerdiest, among us sat at the family computer and read a book while the dial-up beeped and blooped us into a world of dancing babies, age-inappropriate chat rooms, and X-Files fan fiction. The distinctive flavor of consuming slow and fast media in one stimulating bite is not unique to those born between the years of 1983 and 1994, but it has shaped the individual and collective memories of the Millennial; the Internet was going through its awkward pubescent stage and so were we. We did not feel entitled to high-speed anything, because it didn’t exist yet. So, we waited patiently, confident the page would load as we pored over our Sweet Valley Highs. September 11th happened, followed by the global financial crisis of 2008, the election of Donald Trump, and the parade of disappointment and disaster that has followed. The Millennials are a generation of Zunes — full of promise and promised so much. Many of us will never be able to piece together the living that our parents did, as we mooch off others’ Netflix and HBO Go accounts while being culturally berated for eating avocado toast. We failed to catch fire, and the world just keeps on burning.
Hulu’s efforts to repurpose these feelings of precarity and helplessness for our shared entertainment present a mixed blessing — a small-scale existential dilemma all its own. Initially a 1995 novel by Nick Hornby, High Fidelity was subsequently adapted into a 2000 film directed by Stephen Frears and which stars Kravitz’s mother, Lisa Bonet. But the film is really John Cusack’s, with his star turn as Rob, a morose record shop owner who is also a lovable know-it-all, a dude-ly formation oozing with insecurity and privilege. At his worst, he’s the guy you wish you hadn’t started a conversation with at a party; at his best, Reader, you marry him. The casting of Cusack inevitably conjures the ghost of his most famous role, Lloyd Dobler in the Gen X love story, Say Anything (1989). Lloyd and Rob are not one and the same, but they share an understanding of the relationship between romance and technology, the tender love story that can only transpire between a man and his boombox (or his record player, as the case may be).
Hulu’s High Fidelity is not “over” its own exes, though what adaptation ever is? In Hulu’s reimagining of High Fidelity, our Millennial heroine, also named Rob (Zoë Kravitz) exhibits great indecision in her personal life and a comparatively eclectic attitude toward music as material object. She is, by turns, both impulsive and paralyzed, as she chooses between pursuing a former love, Mac (Kingsley Ben-Adir) or moving forward with a new flame, Clyde (Jake Lacey). The decision she makes ultimately speaks to the show’s dual allegiance to the past and the present, the analog and the digital. For Rob, “moving forward” means accepting cutting-edge technologies and new possibilities. For viewers at home, it meant sitting back while Disney finalized its purchase of Fox in March, with lingering rumors that Disney-Fox may be in turn acquired by Apple. And for Millennials who grew up with the rise of home internet and came of age without cell phones, High Fidelity suggests this generation — traumatized by crises and scarcity — lighten up. It comes as no surprise, then, that our heroine opts for a hopeful vision of the future, untethered to a romantic but irretrievable past — one that happens to sustain the bottom lines of NBCUniversal, Comcast, and the famous vaults of Walt Disney.
It is hard to believe High Fidelity was originally intended to be released under the Disney+ banner, listed alongside the National Geographic documentaries and the Pixar Forkie shorts. Disney took equity stake in Hulu in March 2019, and, a month later, High Fidelity found a new home on the latter streaming service. According to the SVP of Content at Disney+, the show had evolved from a PG-13, family-friendly series into something more mature and geared toward adult audiences, and Disney “want[ed] to ensure [High Fidelity’s showrunners and producers] are able to make the show they are envisioning.” The Disney corporation is not known for respecting artists’ autonomy – how’s that for understatement? Then again, Disney populating their new acquisition with its own intellectual property is on-brand, a savvy move that even Mickey Mouse’s beloved dog Pluto could respect: that of marking one’s territory.
Ultimately, High Fidelity is an appropriate roommate for its generational peers at Hulu. The Millennial protagonists of Ramy and Shrill struggle to make a living while remaining true to themselves and to the vision of who they want to be when they grow up. When Ramy (Ramy Youssef) is laid off from his job at a start-up, he is forced to work for his sexist, anti-Semitic diamond dealer Uncle Naseem, who insists that lucrative self-employment is the vehicle for becoming a man. The show follows Ramy’s journey of discovering who he is as a man, a practicing Muslim, and an American. He quickly discovers that, while he does not want to be like his uncle, he disdains his douchey former boss, a man who thanks Ramy for being the office’s “Mediterranean flair.” If work is how a boy becomes a man, a widespread lack of opportunity and professional security, not to mention the dearth of role models, has produced a discontented generation of lost boys. And in Shrill, a show based on the writing and life of columnist Lindy West, Annie (Aidy Bryant) comes to blows with her boss and quits her job at an alternative newspaper, only to discover that “freelancing” is just another word for unpaid obscurity. Just as Ramy must take a job with his uncle, Annie crawls back to her boss, having learned her lesson: even if you have something exciting to say, you still need a corporate platform to be heard.
But the brutalities of today’s economy do not exist in High Fidelity, as what Rob wants to be and what she does for a living neatly match up. In stark opposition to her messy personal life, she is successfully self-employed; as Slate’s Carl Wilson observes, “In the new High Fidelity, the minimally profitable record store that Rob somehow, at 29, has owned and operated for years offers itself as a semi-utopian zone that escapes all that harsh market logic.” Characters are motivated by principle, not profit, which makes for a gentle, if sometimes implausible, viewing experience. In the second episode, when a basic blonde comes in asking to buy a Michael Jackson album for her boyfriend, Rob, her friend Cherise (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), and her gay ex-boyfriend Simon (David H. Holmes) debate whether it is ethical to sell the record, even though they do have it in stock. Later, when a scorned Upper East Side wife (Parker Posey) attempts to sell off her husband’s priceless vinyl collection for a symbolic $20, Rob begs her for the privilege to pay more. The music deserves more than to be a spiteful gesture, she insists. It’s a noble sentiment, but is she the only small retailer in Brooklyn who doesn’t live in fear of Amazon? Internet-based retailers and internet platforms are not the villains in this story of a small business owner — more often than not, they do not exist at all.
But, even in this present that looks and feels like a romanticized past, the iPhone plays a central character, planting us firmly in our contemporary, at times nightmarish, mediascape. With her encyclopedic knowledge of music, Rob has no use for the Shazam app, but she uses her phone to make and send an iMixtape to her ex. As she explains in the opening of the second episode:
Making a playlist is a delicate art. It’s like writing a love letter but better in a way. You get to say what you want to say without actually saying it. You get to use someone else’s poetry to express how you feel. Then there are the rules: it’s gotta be entertaining. It’s gotta tell a story. You may be too obvious, but you can’t be too obscure either…
Rob (or Zoë) could just as easily be describing the formulation of a streaming television series, particularly one that performs its niche appeal while still gunning for a broader audience: entertainment value, a compelling story, and the careful balancing of the “obvious” and the “obscure.” Creative expression in High Fidelity is framed as recycling, renovating rather than innovating. Aspiring musician Cherise can only articulate her own musical tastes as a mixture of others’ oeuvres, including Stevie Wonder, Beyoncé, Swedish prog-rock band Durgan. And Rob’s friend-with-benefits, Liam (Thomas Doherty), brings down the house, and some ladies’ panties, with his white-boy acoustic rendition of Boyz II Men’s “I’ll Make Love To You.” So, even though the music Rob puts on her playlist may be eclectic, her mode of assemblage and distribution through the sleek Apple interface is deeply familiar.
A similar, if not identical, incarnation of the sequence above exists in the film. In it, Cusack’s Rob hunches over a legal pad littered with scribbles and struggles with an uncooperative cassette tape. In 2000, making what he calls a “compilation tape” involved manual effort, not unlike trekking over to Blockbuster Video to turn your vision of a Saturday movie night into a reality. For our new Rob in this emerging moment of media conglomeration and socially isolated consumption, the work of the playlist is entirely cerebral; one need only, as Apple told us back in the day, “think different,” and your technology does the hard work.
The close collaboration between the show’s star and the novel’s author ensured a respectful translation of the original script and story, but Hulu’s High Fidelity has plenty of fun with its intertextual past. At a dinner party she later realizes is comprised entirely of Instagram influencers, Rob tells one guest that she owns and operates her own record shop. Her dining companion replies, “It’s so bad-ass for you to not only occupy but freaking own… such a historically masculine space.” Rob is initially flattered, even taken in — “Yeah I guess it is kind of badass” — and so are we. Replacing High Fidelity’s white male lead with a young woman-of-color even makes the fourth-wall-shattering monologuing from the film feel fresh again. When she speaks to the camera, you are reminded less of Cusack’s performance and more of Fleabag, our current cycle of flawed broad TV protagonists, and Zoë Kravitz as Cool Girl Par Excellence.
When Rob discovers that the aforementioned party has been bankrolled by the Korean beverage company Soju, her reaction is one of horror. She looks around the table to discover everyone is taking a selfie, including a figure that looks like the love child of Chloe Sevigny and Andy Warhol. “Yeah, I hate these people,” Rob decides. “They’re awful.” Moments later, one of these latter-day club kids asks for help taking a “very fucked up and vibey” portrait for Insta. “Uh, looks real,” Rob answers as they review the final product. But is that the same thing? Is reality vibey — we all know it’s fucked up — and isn’t the realist social media aesthetic as constructed as anything else? What a host of baffling and ultimately unsatisfying questions: this your brain on social media, I guess? But the punchline we all see coming is that Rob is hardly a Luddite, nor can a Hulu original series plausibly argue against a utopian future for digital, streaming entertainment.
High Fidelity makes a seductive argument for cannibalizing the past to feed an insatiable media future. When Rob confronts two teenagers who stole records from her store, we see an outlook in which old and new technologies can live together in harmony. “We make our own samples,” they explain, “[and] vinyl sounds better.” For Rob, this is proof that the kids are alright, so she allows them to borrow records to sample and make their own tracks. The fate of cultural production lies in rebooting genres, styles, and intellectual properties, delivered, by algorithm, in shiny, modern packaging. This can only be music to Hulu’s ears.
Millennials inherited from their Gen-X predecessors a cynical, rebellious streak, but share with younger generations a series of setbacks and a collective broken spirit. The idea that artists need patrons is nothing new, but the patron is no longer a wealthy beneficiary; instead, it’s a sprawling, faceless conglomerate. Kravitz told Rolling Stone that she wanted to be a part of adapting High Fidelity because she wanted to “protect” the story and how it was told, but it is only under Disney’s conditional protection that she can do so. The press coverage of Aidy Bryant as writer-producer on Shrill emphasizes the leadership role she took on in shaping the series’s vision and storyline. But the anxiety that her character, Annie, experiences navigating the intricacies of the workplace tell another story: one of never feeling free to speak without the express permission of a company bigger than herself, bigger than her boss, bigger, even, than her boss’s boss.
Rob’s opting for the convenient-new over the complicated-old at season’s end fits with the show’s industry-inflected logic: that we must look at the past with warmth and gratitude while plunging optimistically, uncritically, into a love affair with state-of-the-art technologies and media monopolies. Rob proves to be the perfect mouthpiece for Hulu to articulate an industry future creatively indebted to older stories and modes of telling, but eager to shed that pesky, archaic anti-trust legislation designed to protect consumers and workers alike.
With season two on the horizon, Rob will likely un-make her romantic decisions and toggle between these two men – and a few extra hunks to be named later – for our entertainment. But what won’t be changing is the vision of a world in which the unrelentingly hip shows us how it’s done: classic, old-school headphones plugged into the beating heart of a warm iPhone. At some point, Rob will be tasked with resolving this love triangle, but when it comes to her technologies, compulsory monogamy is off the table. So, fire up your Fire Stick, Millennials, and gear up for your arranged marriage to media conglomerates.