25 Jan I SEE, YOU SEE
Near Wellesley Station in Toronto was Eliot’s Bookshop, a used bookstore I frequented back in high school. It was only three stops out of the way, a short detour I would sneak in on my way home. Its forest green exterior was inviting, the shade of green that denotes intellectualism and a literary sensibility. I’d found Eliot’s online, after a brief Google search: best used bookstores toronto. Eliot’s became an easy fix to a lifelong problem––I read with almost addictive ambition but it was a habit that grew more expensive as I grew older.
One of the first books I bought at Eliot’s was High Fidelity, the Nick Hornby novel about neurotic, recently-dumped record shop owner Rob Fleming. I bought it for $6.95, the paperback spine already a little loved. And love it I did! Nick Hornby quickly soared through the ranks as one of my favourite writers. As I made my way through his work, I bought books containing “Stuff I’ve Been Reading,” his column for The Believer in which he documents the books he’d bought and reviews books he’d read during the preceding month. The reviews read just as easily as his fiction, and at 17, I’d read over 600 pages about books I’d never read, highlighting the titles I wanted to buy, enthralled by how entertaining he made the act of reading–– not that I was anyone who needed convincing.
When I pitched this column to MUSE, I wanted to model it somehow like Hornby’s. I don’t think I realized this until I started playing around with the format in my head and until after I watched the recent streaming adaptation of High Fidelity, starring Zoë Kravitz, this past month.
I’d been avoiding the series for numerous reasons, primarily because I didn’t want to be disappointed. As someone who actively labels herself as ‘extremely online’, I’d read a slew of lukewarm-to-warm reviews when it was released last February, during the ‘Great Before’. As a fan of both the book as well as the John Cusack movie, I questioned whether we even needed another adaptation. The show was cancelled in August of last year, and in my mind that justified my aversion, It had to have been cancelled for some reason, right?
I started 2021 intending to fill in the gaps of what I’d missed, both during this past hell of a year as well as shows I’d missed from the early aughts because I’d just been born. I put off watching High Fidelity for a couple of weeks, but eventually, I bit the bullet and pressed play. So what, it’s just a TV show, I can stop watching whenever I want!
Unlike the novel and the film, the Rob we follow in the show is a Black woman navigating heartbreak in Brooklyn. The show’s been modernized in a sense that we’re no longer following an arrogant, mopey white dude in England or Chicago–– and the completely different perspective through which we view the story breathes new life into material that’s a quarter of a century old. Needless to say, the show’s fantastic.
Oftentimes, voiceover may seem like a hacky form of exposition, a childish crutch that is only seen as a valued cinematic tool when employed by Martin Scorsese. In High Fidelity, Kravitz’s performance is exceptional because she manages to keep these extended scenes where she divulges the inner workings of her psyche to the audience while speaking directly at the camera–– and it’s compelling to watch. Few actors can accomplish what she did: acting without anyone to react in response to, demonstrating a rollercoaster of emotion, from joy to anger to sadness back to joy, without once losing our attention. She’s really just that good.
More than anything, the show made me miss being out in the world. I miss rifling through records. I miss going to concerts, even the shitty ones where you can barely see the stage. I miss having crushes on acquaintances, flirting harmlessly, and being let down when things don’t pan out the way I wanted. The good and the bad, everything’s here, and I miss it all! The cinematography and the music, and the performances make watching the show acutely painful without losing its entertainment value or “goodness” because it just shows us what we’re missing. Anxiety be damned, give me a shitty, messy night at a bar with my friends–– I’ll never take it for granted again.
Eliot’s Bookshop closed at the end of 2017. After 22 years in the same location, exorbitant tax hikes forced the owner, Paul Panayiotidis to shut its doors for good. Consumer culture indicates that the eradication of certain shops is irrelevant because everything is replaceable with something newer, more efficient, or simply “better”. This kind of substitution is only satisfying if you care about “the numbers”, i.e. a financial bottom line. But looking at art or institutions with that lens doesn’t make sense. There is no one-to-one replacement for places like Eliot’s or shows like High Fidelity, especially when Hulu literally doesn’t have a single other show with a lead who is a woman of colour. In the aftermath of this horrible, disruptive, fucked-up-beyond-relief year, we’re going to see a breadth of shows slipped through the cracks and places we’ll never revisit, and I hope to god we don’t putter around wondering what happened and who let these people down.
If you want an immediate answer to this, I suggest you watch Veep (HBO). Led by the always-phenomenal Julia Louis-Dreyfus as the Vice-President of the United States, it follows her turbulent political career and her motley crew of morally corrupt staff. I started rewatching it with my family, having originally seen it as it first aired. Now that we’re finally at the end of the Trump presidency, I’m watching the show from an entirely different perspective.
Obviously, bad, narcissistic, power-hungry people have always populated Washington, D.C.––it’s not like the Trump administration is an exception. But watching the show when I was younger, I was sure it was a satire, an exaggeration: people like this can’t actually exist. If these last four years have proven anything, it is that they can and they do. I don’t know how far this cast of Machiavellian characters is from the truth. These people exist, we’ve seen it with our own eyes (looking at you Josh Hawley, Ted Cruz, and––I’m throwing him in because his speech on the 6th really pissed me the fuck off–– Ben Sasse).
Veep is hilarious, a respite from the awful shit we’ve been seeing every day. Mishaps are played for laughs, we can laugh at these evil people because nothing ever really goes their way. But in light of the insurrection on January 6th and the Republican incompetence that followed, Veep feels uniquely prescient in a way that very few shows can right now.
It’s easy to be cynical towards the future right now–– the government doesn’t care enough about us, the Republicans are evil but the established Democrats only want to uphold the status quo; these statements are true. But we can’t let our frustration wallow and turn into inaction. It’s easy, when you are comfortable and unaffected by inequality, to be willfully blind to the broken system around us. Privilege in its many forms (racial, financial, etc.) grants many the option of being disengaged from politics because regardless of the decisions made by governments their way of being is protected by wealth and whiteness.
People often lament nostalgically about the ‘Great Before’, saying, “I can’t wait for things to go back to normal.” But “normal” didn’t work then, so I don’t see the purpose it would serve now. If you need a reminder of what “normal” was, watch Veep. It’s a warning. A cheerful, raunchy warning, that expanded my vocabulary of insults far beyond what I ever thought was possible, but a warning all the same.
If you want…
…something fun and airy and to see Josie Totah be both a star AND a true comedic genius, watch Saved by the Bell reboot. It’s genuinely delightful and I had a blast. By some miracle, if Belmont Cameli is reading this: hi, this is me shooting my shot lol.
…a mind-numbing way to forget all the terrible shit that’s happening in the world, watch Matt James’ season of The Bachelor. After Tayshia Adams’ terrific season, the long-running franchise is back to basics: hot people, tears, and stupid drama.
…a Victorian police procedural that is not an actual cop-aganda (since they’re all pretty terrible at their jobs), watch Year of the Rabbit. Matt Berry and Freddie Fox are hilarious, but the show’s true star is Susan Wokoma.
… something witty and funny and insightful, watch Fran Lebowitz in Pretend It’s A City. Teaming up again with her pal Martin Scorsese (two Marty mentions in one column!!), this Netflix mini-series is a good short watch if you need something to ground you to reality.
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