It seems pointless to mention that the main draw of Housewives-brand reality shows – and the very reason why a great number of people still watch them – is that they’re hyperbolically unreal. And yet I mentioned it, because Hulu’s The Hotwives of Orlando, created by Danielle Schneider and Dannah Phirman, is the kind of parody that booby-traps one into stating the obvious.
All “reality” shows with the word “wives” in their titles are more formulaic than the worst sitcom, and each guarantees the same type of entertainment: an entertainment of disbelief, one that thrives on the foreignness of these tawdry wives’ “lives.” These shows engage with their audiences through an anti-documentarian promise, a pledge that a “reality” label will be plastered atop choreographed conflicts and deceptive editing. This keeps us ensconced in an addictive guessing game: “Were they ever REALLY friends?” “Was that REALLY her poolboy, or an actor?” “Did she REALLY get that vaginal rejuvenation therapy?” “Should I watch Boyhood instead?” The frail suggestion of “reality” coupled with the preposterousness of it all – whether real or unreal – provides many a snarky group of friends with something to drink and cackle to.
While quality should ideally grow a TV show’s viewership, for these shows, the worse they are, the better. Just as other series woo us by being good, we’re here wooed by spectacular shittiness – we will, in fact, accept nothing less (or more?). For that reason, they’re somewhat parody-proof. Why parody something that already so perfectly captures the hilarity and self-reflexive artifice of our culture?
That’s my main question for The Hotwives of Orlando — a spoof that’s funny when it’s not beating a dead Pomeranian, with jokes that often stem from easy jabs at characters who are already their own walking jabs at everything from income inequality to youth obsession to antiquated gender norms. At this point, we’re all well aware of the dynamics of the “gold-digger/cradle robber” pairing, à la Hotwives characters Tawny St. John and Phil (played Stephen Tobolowsky, who you might remember as the best part of Groundhog Day). We’re aware of the token black friend who compensates for the whiteness of everyone else by exuding a form of racialized exaggeration that’ll give white viewers just the right dose of “balance,” à la Phe Phe Reed. And we’re definitely aware that these nouveau riche characters aren’t the most book-smart people (à la all of them). When Hotwives relies on one-liners underscoring these tropes – as though so doing were some form of well-observed commentary – the jokes land, but in a void left by a real reality TV show that already made them.
To summarize a story you already know, the first episode introduces to a group of frenemy “hotwives”: there’s platinum-blonde Tawny (Casey Wilson); her brunette BFF Shauna (Danielle Schneider); Phe Phe (Tymberlee Hill), whose uncensored words of wisdom verge on abuse; Veronica (Andrea Savage), the cougar with a dubiously British affectation; Crystal (Angela Kinsey), the Christian wet blanket; and last but definitely not least, Amanda, ex-child star and drug addict (Kristen Schaal). The first two episodes, like many of the reality shows Hotwives is spoofing, center around events the ladies are organizing on their husbands’ dimes. In the premiere, Tawny organizes a charity event to benefit dogs without high heels (the goal of which is, of course, to purchase high heels for those dogs). Throughout the episode, tensions rise, and it climaxes in a brilliantly Ionescan fight between Tawny and Shauna over the amount of paws dogs have. This leads into the next episode, where it seems Shauna is cooking up a retaliation party of sorts, whose theme is “pimps and hoes”; for this, Shauna has hired a real “pimp and ho” to give lessons to party guests.
Long-form jokes such as these end up working quite well: as opposed to quick quips that tell us what we already know, these outlandish plotlines evolve beyond the realm of spoof, and actually allow the show to be its own thing. The one-liners are far less successful. In the flat opening minutes of the first episode, before its amusing trajectory becomes clear, the funniest joke is, sadly, about “purple hemorrhoids” — and that’s because it’s the only joke that doesn’t state the obvious.
Because reality TV is already highly comical, the best way to parody it might be to do something that cuts through the semi-scripted pettiness of the characters’ dramas and provides a glimpse at these peoples’ actual inner lives (Matteo Garrone’s 2012 film Reality and Michael Patrick King’s HBO show The Comeback both do this). But Hotwives, as its title suggests, is more a long, serialized sketch than anything else, and seems content as mere parody-homage, which means it can lazily imitate and exaggerate. One of its pleasures comes from its confluence with regular reality shows – since it’s only a little less real than reality TV, it’s easy to forget we’re not actually watching a Housewives episode, where everything just happens to be a little funnier and more absurd than usual. This pleasure is short-lived once you realize you could be watching the “real” thing; I want more from the knock-off.
Still, because I’m hoping for more long-form payoffs – and because I’ve always been enamored of comedy-vet cast members Matt Besser (perhaps one of the greatest living improvisers) and Kristen Schaal (duh) – I’ll keep watching. The show is teeming with Upright Citizens Brigade vets, and I’m hoping they’ll have the comedic insight, in later episodes, to acknowledge the stuffy trappings of spoof-dom and air the show out a bit.