In a time when unemployment lines are lengthening and the cost of living is skyrocketing lives two entirely separate societies. One where the future is unfathomably uncertain and another where there’s so much certainty you could spend $35,000 on a TV that elevates out of your floor without batting an eye. These differences were present long before the pandemic, but they’re magnified even more now by the high unemployment rate, mass loss of healthcare and growing number of evictions. While millions of Americans are at risk of losing their only shelter during a global virus outbreak, the rich can retreat to their lavish compounds, places most people could only dream of stepping foot inside.
Netflix’s new reality series Selling Sunset premiered at the end of March, which in hindsight, wasn’t exactly the most savvy PR move. The show stars the Los Angeles real estate agents of The Oppenheim Group, owned and operated by twin brothers Jason and Brett Oppenheim, and it mainly centers around seven female realtors who sell the most breathtaking multimillion dollar homes you can imagine. There are 12-car garages, palm trees growing inside of atriums and properties whose owners are so wealthy they can afford to lower power lines to improve the views. It’s not hard to see what’s so jarring about this picture. People who are lucky enough to live this kind of lifestyle can focus solely on their families, careers and personal happiness—it’s a life that’s been dangled over Americans for decades, but is so rarely within reach.
In some ways, Selling Sunset is the most American TV show there is. The “work hard, play hard” mentality depicted in the series is as American as the lies we tell ourselves about how good baseball is and the prayers college students recite so they’ll get hit by a car and be relieved of debt. This muscle emoji-style philosophy is both unattainable for most people and a harmful way to order priorities—we’re not working to live, we’re living to work. It’s the same outlook that makes us feel guilty about taking a day off work or getting another five minutes of sleep to prepare for the long day ahead. We’re told to hustle today, tomorrow and every day for the rest of our lives in order to justify our pathetic existence and meet basic human needs. The Amazon worker who spends all day packing boxes and being tracked so they maintain a certain benchmark of productivity doesn’t get to “play hard.” They don’t even get to think about their own happiness, so they’re certainly not thinking about what’s on their vision board or bucket list.
Selling Sunset is quite literally selling a dream of domesticity and prosperity. Like marriage and having children, home ownership is a milestone that’s increasingly less achievable compared to previous generations. Ask an average millennial when they think they’ll be able to afford a house and they’ll do a spit take with their La Croix. Due to unprecedented levels of debt and costs of living, most millennials and zoomers are forced to live with roommates in tiny, run-down apartments in major cities where most of the jobs are clustered. Even the idea of having a yard seems utopian. The average person will never be wealthy enough to be a client of The Oppenheim Group, but there’s a decent chance they could be a viewer of their Netflix show—Americans love a good reality show.
“She can sit on the floor until she proves herself,” Christine Quinn says of newly hired agent Chrishell Hartley in episode one of Selling Sunset. These are the kind of just-kidding-but-not-really quips reality TV viewers are used to. Petty fights are the lifeblood of these programs, even if the cast purposely plays up the drama for the cameras. Where would we be without the snap of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills cast member Taylor Armstrong angrily crying and pointing mid-fight, which became a viral meme when paired with an image of a befuddled cat sitting for dinner? And where would we be without Real Housewives of New York City’s Aviva Drescher whipping out her prosthetic leg during a quarrel to declare, “The only thing artificial or fake about me is this,” before chucking it at Heather Thomson? In a much less colorful place, that’s where. Selling Sunset doesn’t have any physical fights or flung artificial limbs, but it has plenty of grudges and easily avoidable drama.
Throughout the show’s three seasons, the real estate agents try their best to maintain healthy friendships and business relationships with each other. Many of the scenes take place inside their Los Angeles office, which has froofy dogs scurrying around and fancy displays of a company-branded motorcycles and wine (a frequent butt of jokes as the agents say it’s lackluster, which overlooks the fact that 99.9% of employers don’t have their own wine).
Early on in the show, it’s obvious each of the women occupy their own distinct roles based on their personalities. Quinn is completely unfiltered and sometimes outrageous—making her both the funniest cast member and the most outright rude (think of her as the show’s Scott Disick). Hartley is kind and motherly, Maya Vander is even-keeled and pleasant and Davina Potratz, the least featured of the group, is frequently depicted peddling drama in ways more subtle but also more conniving than Quinn. Americans love a hero as much as they love a villain.
The cast isn’t quite as dramatic as the casts of other reality shows, but the hearsay and back-handed comments are aplenty. Everything this show represents is troubling, if not insulting, but the humor and amusement that lies within are frankly worth your time. At one point and without shame, Quinn divulges that she has no idea what a cabin is, which is one of the funniest things I’ve heard all year—much less on TV. She also threw a party with zebras and Cirque du Soleil performers and held a grandiose wedding with fake indoor snow cascading over a pond of swans and her sparkling black gown. Another Quinn highlight is a conversation with agent Heather Rae Young who asks Quinn, “Are you going to Chrishell’s charity event?” to which she rolls her eyes and replies during a cutaway, “Everyday I spend my life with these bitches in the office. I mean, like, that is the charity event!”
As privileged and occasionally rude as they may be, they don’t seem like cold-hearted people. They look out for each other (sometimes to a fault), have regular company dinners and hangouts and share many of their dating and family troubles with the group. However, the show feels like a never-ending game of telephone. Agent A talks about agent B’s marriage with agent C, and then agent C finds out, leading to conversations with agents D and E about agents A and B. It’s tiring, but kind of impressive just how frequently they do this throughout the series.
Selling Sunset is simultaneously a relentlessly entertaining show and a reminder of just how siloed American life is. The routinely featured infinity pools and marble fireplaces represent both a sexy, desirable luxury and a mystifying topic for a large swath of the population. Even if you finally scrape together enough money to buy a house, there’s still no way you’d attend an open house event titled “Burgers and Botox” in Laurel Canyon, but you might enjoy chatting about it with your friends during a Netflix binge. Most people would never chastise their co-worker for having an engagement ring made out of moissanite, but you’re definitely going to discuss it in detail with fellow viewers when it happens on this show.
There are Batmans in this series (Hartley, Mary Fitzgerald, Amanza Smith) as well as Jokers (Quinn, Potratz), there is extreme wealth and extreme poverty (they volunteer to feed the homeless in Season 1) and there are ridiculous jokes and laughable fights. If that’s not America, I’m not sure what is.
Lizzie Manno is an associate music editor, Coldplay apologist, bread obsessive and lover of all things indie, punk and shoegaze at Paste. Follow her on Twitter @LizzieManno
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