Looking Back on Hi-Octane, Sofia Coppola’s TV Homage to Gen-X

by Jihane Bousfiha

hi octane collage
Courtesy of Hi-Octane. Collage by Ashley Peña for W.

Welcome to W TV Club, in which W magazine chooses a television show they’d recommend you binge-watch. This week, we’re looking at Sofia Coppola and Zoe Cassavetes’s short-lived Gen-X variety show, Hi-Octane.

Long before Sofia Coppola became known for bringing some of the best depictions of womanhood to the big screen, she gave us Hi-Octane, a short-lived Gen-X variety series that aired on Comedy Central in 1994. The show saw Coppola team up with partner-in-crime and fellow daughter of filmmaker royalty Zoe Cassavetes—whose most recent directing credits include episodes of The Sex Lives of College Girls and Emily in Paris—journey between Los Angeles and New York City while stopping to visit their famous friends along the way. At the age of 23, just five years before making her feature directorial debut with The Virgin Suicides, Coppola pulled back the curtain on her fame with what could be considered one of the most ‘90s television shows ever made.

The series features a little bit of everything—from cars to fashion to music and celebrity appearances, it has it all. Hi-Octane is completely enthralled with cars; the title itself is derived from a connection to automobiles and the fast-paced opening sequence, which interjects title cards of buzzwords like “SUPER CHARGED,” “FUEL INJECTED,” and “DYNAMIC,” practically serves as an ode to vehicles. In the first episode, Coppola and Cassavetes energetically learn how to get behind the wheel of a monster truck, and they repeatedly ask interview subjects if they’ve ever had sex in a motor vehicle before.

In an interview with Vogue in 2020, Coppola reminisces on Hi-Octane, stating that it was “what we were into and what we had access to.” The “access” they had came primarily in the form of celebrity connections. The series features a myriad of guest appearances from some of the coolest people the ‘90s had to offer: they speak with filmmakers Martin Scorsese and Gus Van Sant as well as music icon Debbie Harry, offer road-side assistance to Keanu Reeves, speak to Coppola’s cousin Nicolas Cage in the Big Apple, and have late photographer Shawn Mortensen speak to the likes of Karl Lagerfeld and Naomi Campbell during Paris Fashion Week. It all makes the viewer wonder, what other show could possibly get supermodel Jenny Shimizu to offer mechanic tips and spill the tea on a possible ménage à trois with Campbell and Christy Turlington in a limousine ride?

In some episodes of the series, Sonic Youth frontman Thurston Moore hosts a recurring segment called “Thurston’s Alley,” equipped with its own catchy theme song, during which he interviews the likes of Johnny Ramone and Sylvia Miles in the alley outside his downtown Manhattan apartment, while also venturing away from his regular spot to visit the Vogue headquarters and speak with Anna Wintour. His bandmate Kim Gordon’s fashion label X-girl, co-founded by Daisy von Furth, gets a guerrilla runway show in Soho set to Bikini Kill’s “Rebel Girl” in the second episode, featuring It Girl Chloë Sevigny a year before Kids catapulted her into mainstream fame.

In a memorable segment, sporting Chanel suits (another perk of having connections, as Coppola interned at the fashion house when she was a teenager)—with Coppola’s being a replica of Jackie O’s iconic pink suit—black sunglasses, pearl necklaces, and blown-out hair, the pair transform into Brittany and Susan, talk show hosts of Ciao L.A. In this bit, the Beastie Boys are interviewed while appearing in character as Nathan Wind, Alasandro Alegré, and Vic Calfari from their music video “Sabotage.”

According to Cassavetes, Hi-Octane was one of the first television series to be shot on digital video. The low budget, experimental, and lo-fi show is fast-paced with quick, choppy cuts and minor imperfections made along the way that add to its personality, giving it a distinct style that makes it stand out from the rest of the decade’s television landscape. The show epitomizes the ‘90s DIY aesthetic and exudes utter coolness, serving as a snapshot of Cassavetes and Coppola’s early days. What makes Hi-Octane most compelling lies entirely within its wild energy, which gives you the feeling that you’re right in the middle of the ‘90s indie scene it captures, while also never taking itself too seriously.

The show was clearly way ahead of its time, which is probably why Comedy Central pulled the plug on it after only four episodes. Giving us a real, up-close look at the lives of celebrities, it’s difficult to imagine a show this boldly bonkers being made today, especially since social media has given us wider access to the lives of famous people, even though their public image is often filtered and curated to perfection. In the age of social media, reality television, and the resurgence of ‘90s nostalgia, Hi-Octane is the perfect hidden gem to discover, with three of the original four episodes available on Youtube for your viewing pleasure.