If you are sick enough of reality that reality TV isn’t quite the escape it used to be, perhaps you can find some additional solace in fake reality TV. The genre that spawned such ingenuities as Reno 911 and Burning Love is still abundantly fertile ground, even as the basic act of parody seems more futile by the day. And one of its newest and finest entrants, Seeso’s Bajillion Dollar Propertie$, provides a welcome opportunity to delight in the suffering of those whose wealth is exceeded only by their vanity.
Created and executive produced by Kulap Vilaysack (Who Charted?) and now in its third season, Bajillion is an ensemble comedy that follows the fictional Los Angeles luxury real estate firm Platinum Realty. Each episode pits Platinum’s team of valiantly inept agents against two foes: their customers and each other. The former all have some (naturally) whacky quirk that their agents must bend over backwards to accommodate, a formula that in Bajillion’s cast of seasoned improvisors yields endlessly funny results. And every agent makes every sale with the singular goal of one-upping their coworkers, thus earning the favor of Platinum’s owner, Dean Rosedragon. In each season the crusty, snobbish Rosedragon, Paul F. Tompkins’ greatest character to date, sets some grander office ambition that ignites the competition and provides a season-long arc: who will make partner, who will win this or that industry award, who will write the forward to Rosedragon’s book. Platinum’s clients are played by an impressive array of guest stars plucked from Vilaysack’s Rolodex; the Platinum team, by low-key one of the best ensembles currently on TV.
“All of these characters are divisions of my personality,” said Vilaysack, a longtime fan of real estate reality TV shows like Million Dollar Listings. Fortunately for her staff, she’s not quite as cutthroat as Platinum’s realtors or as megalomaniacal as its owner. “My style, I would say, is very motherly,” she told Paste. “I like to work hard but I like to have fun. I like to create environments where people do the hard work and experience the fun. It’s really important to me for people to feel valued and to have a good time… I like to make sure everyone gets their basic needs. I think that’s a good gauge for how good the show is.” Practically speaking, this means there’s usually plenty of food on set and spare text for Bajillion’s busy guest stars to memorize. Artistically speaking, it means Bajillion abides by one of improv most important tenets: Give your collaborators as much to work with as possible.
“The show is semi-scripted so that none of our improvisors have to ever come up with the plot,” Vilaysack said. “We lay out the game and some signposts—hit this beat, hit this beat—but in between, that’s where their brilliance comes through.” The structure is simple: Guest stars play deranged rich people who make ludicrous demands of their realtors, who unflinchingly debase themselves to close the deal. There’s one or two every episode, diced between talking heads segments and the more serialized plot elements. In season three we meet, among others, Sarah Silverman as a washed-up rock guitarist who takes every opportunity to reference to her lone claim to fame; Bret McKenzie as a soft-spoken, inland mansion-buyer terrified of whales; and, a season highlight, Rhys Darby as a pilot with no time to waste before his next flight. Vilaysack’s frequent collaborator Jason Mantzoukas also returns as an, uh, eccentric industry photographer. “You never know what Mantzoukas is gonna do,” she said. “He’s like a wolf—and they’re not domestic. You just stay out of his way and he’s gonna give you everything and a half.”
For Vilaysack and her writing team—which includes Alex Fernie, Seth Morris, Kevin Seccia, Matt McConkey and head writer Shauna McGarry (Take My Wife)—brainstorming these quirks comes early in the writing process. “What makes our show work so well is we don’t ask a lot of time from the actors,” she said. “We’ll get together at the beginning of the season and just pitch possible characters and character games—sellers, people in the industry, buyers. And then, like with Sarah [Silverman], I’ll pitch her: Do you like this idea? Or this idea? She’ll pick which one she likes and then, of course, on the day she can add whatever she likes to it.” As with any good improv podcast, the structure leaves enough space for Bajillion’s guests to imbue the show with their own peculiar voices and comedic sensibilities. “The nature of improv is collaborative,” Vilaysack said, “so my people bring in stuff and make something their own and it only gets better.”
Bajillion’s clear, confident voice is owed not only to its writers and improvisors but also to its director of photography, Jonathan Nicholas. He ably captures the genre’s pornographic adulation of luxury real estate, basking in glittering shots of opulent sun-drenched mansions and dizzying SoCal panoramas. “The look of it is very Bravo, with a more comedic sensibility,” Vilaysack said of Bajillion’s visual style. “It’s certainly got the vérité—and that’s being generous—of the reality genre… And it’s three cameras, which is a blessing because you don’t want to spend too much time [with her guest actors] but you also don’t want to improvise everything to death. It’ll feel tired. With three cameras I can edit and have so much coverage.”
And then there’s that core ensemble. As the Platinum team, Dan Ahdoot, Tim Baltz, Ryan Gaul, Mandell Maughan, Tawny Newsome and Drew Tarver—they’re all standouts—gleefully embody capitalism and materialism’s worst excesses. They have all the chemistry of a veteran improv team with the magnetism of any star reality cast. Their skills lend naturally to Bajillion’s loose approach, allowing plot-serving scenes to divert fluidly and frequently into unexpected territory. This is a show full of delicious banter and sparkling soliloquies, enthusiastic ass-kissing and crooked, calculated backstabbing. Like a good reality TV series, it’s far better than reality. And though that disparity brings with it a certain sense of regret, there is still a special pleasure to watching real estate professionals manufacture, over and over again, their own terrible demise.
Bajillion Dollar Propertie$ is streaming on Seeso.
Seth Simons is Paste’s assistant comedy editor. Follow him on Twitter.