Hornby’s story focuses on Rob, a 35-year-old man-child music nerd and record shop owner who spends his days obsessively making desert island disc-style Top 5 lists and arguing about the perfect mix-tape with his two buddies, who also work at the shop.
Freshly dumped by his long-term girlfriend, Rob turns his compulsive list-making on to his love life, ranking his previous break-ups and seeking them out to find out why he can’t win at love.
This incarnation is faithful to Hornby’s novel about the power of music and heartbreak, while seamlessly moving the action to the 21st century Brooklyn landscape of digital playlists, Instagram influencers and Yelp reviews.
The heart of the story remains, but co-creators Veronica West and Sarah Kucserka (who have worked together on several series, including Ugly Betty) have flipped Rob’s gender; here Rob is short for Robin, played by Zoe Kravitz (whose mother, Lisa Bonet, starred in Frears’ film). Despite looking effortlessly cool, Kravitz (also an executive producer) manages to embody the slacker superfan perfectly; she’s both annoyingly self-pitying and relatable (particularly to those of us who have ended relationships on the basis of bad record collections).
And the gender flip doesn’t feel token; Kravitz is believable in her music obsession, and this Rob (who is also biracial and bisexual; one of her top 5 break-ups is a woman) is something of a throwback, an analogue devotee in a digital hipster world; she uses digital playlists but vinyl is her first choice.
Given music culture has been for so long dominated by white men – in pop culture and real life – it’s (bizarrely) long overdue seeing a woman arguing the merits of vocal overdubs on Wings’ live 1976 album Wings Over America, or salivating over a rare pressing of a Bowie album with a typo on the cover.
Rob’s co-workers have also been overhauled – loudmouth Barry (Jack Black in the film) is now Cherise (De’Vine Joy Randolph), a black woman just as passionate about music, and Simon (David H Holmes) is the more timid of the tripo – the character played by Todd Louiso in the film. In this iteration he’s gay.
While there are many updates, there are still moments from the book /film paraphrased throughout – the Beta Band scene has been updated to Swamp Dogg (there’s a Beta Band nod in a different scene), the argument about whether to sell a customer a Stevie Wonder record is now about a Michael Jackson album, and Rob even sports a few T-shirts worn in the original by Cusack.
Rob also still continually breaks the fourth wall, a risky device that can wear thin but by episode three has a certain cosiness.
By necessity in a series this long, Rob’s circle is expanded and other characters given new life – an entire episode is given to Simon, who talks us through his own top heartbreak list – and fans of the novel will be pleased that one section of the book omitted from the film is here given an entire episode, where a wife (Parker Posey) seeks revenge on her cheating husband by offering to sell Rob his valuable record collection for a pittance. The ending is also left open, suggesting a potential second season, which, given the groove the cast is in by this season’s end, wouldn’t likely suffer from difficult second album issues.
Kylie Northover is Spectrum Deputy Editor at The Age