TV Review: Is The Shameless Escapism of ‘Selling Sunset’ The Future of Reality TV?

The premise of Selling Sunset is delightfully simple: conventionally beautiful women sell multi-million dollar houses whilst engaging in frivolous drama with each other. The show, whose second season dropped on Netflix last month, follows the professional endeavours and personal tribulations of the employees of the Oppenheim Group, a renowned real estate brokerage in Los Angeles. Jason and Brett, the two muscly, commitment-phobic bachelors who founded the company (and also happen to be identical twins), supervise a team of seven perpetually sophisticated, tirelessly ambitious, and occasionally bitchy women. 

Although watching pretty women be good at their jobs can be entertaining (as well as a significant step-up from being merely pretty), watching them bicker over the most insignificant stuff is what undeniably holds the most appeal. In classic reality TV fashion, Selling Sunset provides its fair share of nonsensical drama – often instigated or bolstered by Christine, the long-legged, feisty blonde who constantly apologises for her mistakes but routinely fails to learn from them. 

In the first season, misplaced curiosity about Mary’s supposedly penniless French boyfriend – who had the audacity of proposing with a diamond-less ring – was the spark that ignited a major fight between Christine and newly-recruited Chrishell, casting a cloud of interpersonal hostility over the office. The tension continued into the latest installment of the series, before it was eclipsed by another, similar drama which involved Christine directly, sparing her the effort of inserting herself. This season’s central plot point boiled down to a passing comment about a purported ‘overlap’ between Christine and her fiancé’s ex, which accounted for most of the tears, passive-aggressive comments, and theatrical exits occurring over the eight episodes.

The constant falling out and making up, the countless shots of cast members rolling their eyes at each other, the persistent “can I pull you aside for a chat?” are all hallmarks of compelling reality TV. That Selling Sunset would provide those tropes is expected. But what is surprising, and welcomed, is that it doesn’t try to elevate them. Refreshingly, the series doesn’t try to ascribe deeper meaning to something that has none, thereby avoiding going down the self-defeating route taken by other shows. Too Hot To Handle, for instance, bafflingly, and unsuccessfully, tried to add depth to an ostensibly shallow premise – conventionally attractive people trying to resist temptation – by making it about a nebulous notion of “self-discovery”.

Selling Sunset doesn’t attempt anything of the sort. It is shameless in its depiction of obscene wealth, and doesn’t atone for it by giving a bigger purpose to the process of acquiring and selling real estate. Aerial shots of luxurious mansions and club music – with recurring lyrical themes of empowerment, opulence and glee – open the majority of the scenes, plunging the viewer in an atmosphere of unbridled, carefree abundance. 

Yes, Selling Sunset is ostensibly, and exclusively, about rich people buying high-end properties, and that may seem jarring to viewers whose lives are defined, now more than ever, by severe wealth disparities. But the show has the decency of not presenting the pursuit of luxury as a virtuous or meaningful endeavour, saving it from being glaringly tone-deaf and brazenly out-of-touch. By avoiding the trap of spewing inspirational platitudes as a stand-in for sensitively addressing the social context in which it exists – instead doing neither – the show manages to remain genuinely enjoyable throughout.

However, the show’s reluctance to be aware of its social context, beyond simply the outrageous Californian affluence it unabashedly portrays, could also be considered a shortcoming. Would it do the series any good to explore its gender, class and racial dynamics? Whilst the first season dabbled in it – an unwanted sexual advances storyline and a conversation surrounding Chrishell’s experience of homelessness during childhood – season two steers clear of such topics completely. The fact that the new recruit Amanza is the only woman of colour in the office, highlighting how white the real estate industry is, is not addressed at all. 

This in turn begs the question: what do we want from our reality TV? The entertainment we consume can never be separated from the social, political and economic circumstances in which it is embedded, but do we want or need shows to recognise those circumstances and consider their impact? I’d argue that whilst a total lack of acknowledgment can do a series a great disservice, something that can’t be done well shouldn’t be done at all. The series’ second season did not provide space for important conversations, but maybe it wasn’t the show’s responsibility to do so. Purely escapist entertainment is not meant to be more, and some shows’ attempt to go beyond their remit often rings hollow. Selling Sunset seems to have understood that. 

Words by Chloé Meley

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