Streaming Wars

07.15.14

Hulu’s Very Funny ‘Hotwives of Orlando’ Takes on Netflix

Hulu’s hilarious new spoof of the ‘Real Housewives’ franchise could be its most successful original series yet. But can the streaming video service compete with Netflix and Amazon?

“This is Orlando. You go big or you go back to Kissimmee.”

The hilarious dig at Florida’s fifth-largest city is one of the standout lines in Hulu’s very funny new spoof of Bravo’s Real Housewives franchise, The Hotwives of Orlando. But “going big” could actually be looked at as an extended metaphor for what the new reality TV spoof, which launches Tuesday, hopes to help accomplish for the streaming service: stake a claim in the increasingly crowded and increasingly mainstream world of online original programming, currently dominated by Netflix and Amazon.

Hotwives’ sprawling cast—including comedy vets Casey Wilson (Happy Endings), Angela Kinsey (The Office), and Kristen Schaal (30 Rock)—sends up the trashiness and moral bankruptcy of Real Housewives in perfect comedic fashion, while landing a bevy of sharp punches at Florida in the process. (“Anyone who’s anyone in Central Florida will be there,” says trophy wife Tawny of the party she’s throwing for her charity, which provides high heels for all of Orlando’s neediest dogs.)

Funny as it is, though, it’s a wild dream to think that Hotwives could put Hulu on the map in the way that House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black did for Netflix, or even Alpha House did for Amazon. But it’s the perfect series to help the service make cautious headway in the market by appealing to a niche, Internet-savvy audience—a move that is both smart for Hulu, but a little counterproductive to any mainstream ambitions.

According to CNET, original programming only accounted for 5 percent of Hulu’s streaming last fall. But in the time since, the service has made an aggressive effort to become more than just a destination for programming it borrows from other networks, but for its own as well.

“Initially, we were very successful at doing premium content distribution for other people. And as time went on, it made sense for us to have things that were uniquely and distinctly ours,” Hulu Originals head of development Charlotte Koh said earlier this year. “It’s sort of like the supermarket,” she said of their plan to woo potential viewers with old episodes of Scandal and then convince them to try out their original series. “You always go in because you know you’re going to buy some milk, but you might try some new brand of cookies.”

While Hulu, like Netflix, doesn’t release ratings for its shows, the service has been making progress in getting people to try its Hulu Originals brand of cookies—and, perhaps more importantly, talk about them in the mainstream television conversation. Its biggest success so far, gauging by buzz more than anything else, has been The Awesomes, an animated series from Seth Meyers. 

After Kristen Schaal’s Amanda introduces herself as a former child star, she fills us in on what she’s been up to in the years since: “I gave meth a whirl.”

At its upfront presentation in May, CEO Mike Hopkins said Hulu plans to triple its investment in original content. This has been the most aggressive year yet, with the service in the process of rolling out its most extensive original programming lineup to date, of which Hotwives of Orlando is one offering.

If the PR push behind it is any indication, it’s one of the new series Hulu has the most faith in taking off. It’s certainly not misplaced faith, either.

Hotwives is from the same production company behind the Burning Love web series that aired on Yahoo. The spoof of the Bachelor starring Ken Marino quickly went viral thanks (among other things) to a Jennifer Aniston cameo, catapulting the Yahoo series to hit web status. Hotwives has nearly the same tone, style, and feel as Burning Love, making it a wise choice for Hulu to push so aggressively.

That’s all to say that it’s really funny.

“I always speak my mind, and my mind thinks you’re ugly,” says Hotwive Phe Phe, played by breakout Tymberlee Hill. “I don’t want any drama tonight,” says Casey Wilson’s Tawny at her charity event after hearing that one of the other Hotwives was talking about her behind her back. “So I’m going to confront her about it.” After Kristen Schaal’s Amanda introduces herself as a former child star, she fills us in on what she’s been up to in the years since: “I gave meth a whirl.”

Strong as the writing is—and it’s way smarter and has a stronger point of view than your typical web spoof aspires to be—it’s hard to shake the feeling that it’s a web spoof, something that’s in stark contrast to the lavish and extravagant production Netflix is putting forth.

Hulu’s programming is perfectly suited to rabid consumers of Internet content and cult comedy. Netflix’s programming, on the other hand, has been a smash because it has managed to woo the opposite of that audience: the mainstream TV viewers who don’t necessarily know their web personality from their improv comedy stars. Niche series like Hotwives, and The Awesomes before it, are the kind you hear about through whispers from web tastemakers and blogs. You “discover” them, which is certainly a different kind of entry point to Hulu’s original account than to Netflix’s. A political drama starring Kevin Spacey, for example, does not to be “discovered.”

So Hotwives may not be the series that puts Hulu on the same tier as Netflix or Amazon when it comes to awareness and popularity of its original content. But there’s nothing wrong with being the third-best destination for something. Just as ask the residents of Orlando, easily the third-best city in Florida…but the top one for comedic fodder on reality TV spoofs airing on web-streaming services.