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6 August 2020

The appeal of Selling Sunset, a hot, capitalist hellscape

Netflix's Selling Sunset has exploded in popularity during the pandemic, thanks to its fantasy world of absurdly opulent homes and openly nasty real estate agents.   

By Sarah Manavis

By July, like hundreds of millions of other couples in lockdown, my boyfriend and I had run out of TV to watch. I had heard about the Netflix reality show Selling Sunset, which follows real estate agents working in the property market of the wealthiest pockets of Los Angeles, which had seemed to become more popular during the pandemic. Even though I knew my boyfriend didn’t love reality TV, we felt we had few options. He decided we could give it a try. After a few episodes I turned to him expecting to hear I could watch this one on my own. But to my surprise, he wanted to keep going. “Let’s watch some more of those horrible agents,” he said. We finished all ten hours of the show in two days. 

I debated whether I should include his comment here. Was it an exaggerated, uncharitable thing to say? Were we fair in thinking these people were a bit… awful? But while we tried to work out why we liked this show, and what had made it convert opponents of modern reality TV, we realised it was true: it is horrible. And this capitalist horror show felt unlike anything we’d watched before.  

Selling Sunset is the story of one LA real estate agency: The Oppenheim Group, run by twin brothers Jason and Brett Oppenheim. They cater to buyers and sellers who are stratospherically wealthy – the show never features a property valued at less than $2m, and they sell more than $250m of property a year. For the agents themselves, commissions are typically in the six-figure range and occasionally go into seven. Their clients are the 1 per cent of the 1 per cent. 

The real narrative lies not in the brothers, but in six (and then seven) employees who work at their brokerage: Mary, Chrishell, Davina, Christine, Heather and Maya (with agent Amanza joining in season two). In the show the agency is stocked with thin, rich, attractive women who are, until the second season, all white. They openly throw around words like “fat” and “bitch”, sneer at anything they consider “cheap”, and have no qualms about airing their materialism and expensive tastes. They are fundamentally competitive and, for the most part, intelligent – if not conniving. Their internal drama, both personal and professional, is what sells the show. 

On paper, Selling Sunset shouldn’t be particularly captivating. We’ve seen this aesthetically lavish premise – hot, rich white ladies doing hot, rich white lady things – before. And even with that familiarity, it delivers little of the drama promised across the spectrum of popular reality television (the drink slinging of Real Housewives; the heartbreak and betrayal that drives Love Island). In the abstract, Selling Sunset reads as almost boring: one of the biggest feuds of the entire series revolves around one agent mocking another’s engagement ring for being made of moissanite, not diamond. The houses are impressive, but depressingly homogeneous, designed in the same paint-by-numbers style of neutral colours, floor-to-ceiling glass doors, geometric kitchens, and open-plan everything. The agents use the same words to describe them all – “sexy”, “modern”, “an indoor-outdoor feel”. Together, these factors should have made Selling Sunset destined for middling, short-lived success. 

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[see also: Cruel voyeurism: why reality TV shows are inherently bad for contestants’ mental health]

But a plot synopsis or trailer can’t tell you what makes it unique: the relentless honesty of the agents. You are surprised from the first episode as cast members air their unfiltered thoughts both to camera and to each other. Opinions are shared with nonchalance, but are so ruthless and uncompromising that you physically feel your jaw drop with each careless, savage admission. And, for 40 short minutes, you could let yourself think like them too. They want money, they want to climb to the top, and they’re above niceties. Selling Sunset is an unashamedly materialistic dreamscape where the viewer is allowed to indulge their most unacceptable thoughts without ever being asked to feel a drop of guilt. 

While other reality shows dance around their real purpose (Love Island stars pretend they’re looking for love, not more Instagram followers; the Real Housewives fake an interest in the other wives they reportedly spend little time with off-set), Selling Sunset has no such pretence. None of the cast members have any apparent interest in being relatable, and some even relish the fact that their lives are far more lavish than the rest of the group. Bluntness is a fundamental facet of every person who appears on the show and everyone is expected to say what they think to the face of the person they’re thinking it about. “If you don’t own up to the things that you say, you’re going to get in trouble in this brokerage,” Christine says in the first season. “I want to say whatever the fuck I want, and for no one to get offended.”

Unlike other reality shows, the cast of Selling Sunset regularly break the fourth wall; acknowledging they’re starring in a TV show as the series unfolds. The second season is riddled with references to the first, with disputes emerging as different characters watch season one. Romain uninvites Davina to his and Mary’s wedding after watching how she spoke about him to other agents in season one. Chrishell complains about Christine making fun of her via a Selling Sunset-themed cocktail party (where “Chrishell’s Two-Faced Tonic” was served). In the lead-up to season three, which comes to Netflix on 7 August, the cast have engaged in high-profile rows about coverage of the show. Chrishell dispelled rumours about her divorce that Christine had allegedly fed to the tabloids. “She knows absolutely nothing about the situation and is obviously desperate to gain attention by doing so,” Chrishell said on Twitter. A few weeks later, Christine tweeted: “My back hurts from carrying this show.”

[see also: Trump’s Axios interview isn’t The Thick Of It – it’s nothing Americans haven’t seen before]

Real estate is only one part of the programme, but the Hollywood mega-mansions are part of the appeal. Selling Sunset is the latest in a long line of property shows, from Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and Property Brothers to Location, Location, Location. Every scene happens in the shadow of an undisclosed celebrity’s home or from a billionaire’s beach house. The aesthetics are shamelessly maximalist: 12-car garages, fancy restaurants, lavish parties and weddings. It does not try to tempt you with pockets of decadence, but creates a world so egregiously opulent it implies the question: If so many of us are, what’s keeping you from being rich? 

The explosion of Selling Sunset’s popularity has undoubtedly happened over the past six months of the coronavirus crisis: around the world, households in various stages of lockdown have had no choice but to face the reality of where and how they live. Much of the show’s audience will be watching from cramped, rented accommodation, with question marks hanging over their employment (if they’re lucky enough to still have any); the fantasy homes on offer in Selling Sunset are nothing short of complete escapism. Staring at your mouldy walls and chipping paint, you find yourself calling $2m mansions “tacky”. The panoramic views aren’t any good; that infinity pool is a little small. You start to empathise with buyers who think the sixth bedroom should also have an en suite. It becomes impossible to keep yourself from slipping into the show’s monied abyss. 

The Selling Sunset universe is one of little kindness, harsh hours, and few protections between work and play. But the rewards make you wonder if it might be worth enduring the extremes. It depicts something close to an advertisement of What Capitalism Can Do For You! If you are driven and ruthless, the show tells us, money can become your new best friend. It’s tempting to believe it.

[see also: Channel 4’s Jade Goody documentary shows we still fail to treat reality stars as real people]

The third season is billed to be its most dramatic yet. A high-profile divorce, a wedding in the midst of spiking coronavirus cases, and the rumoured sale of a $40m home have been teased to viewers’ manic, desperate delight. But even within the details given, viewers can already see the old dynamics beginning to play out. “I really want to be excited for my wedding,” Christine says, exasperated, in the trailer, “but obviously it’s overshadowed by Chrishell’s divorce.” 

Like any television show in any genre, these dynamics will eventually get old. But as a third season prepares to land, you can’t help but feel Selling Sunset is only getting started. The vivid aesthetic of wealth it offers is a rare, virtual reality experience of what life is like at the top. It ultimately shows us that this is the 1 per cent’s world. We just have to remember that we’re not actually living in it. 

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