“Selling Sunset” and the Promise and Cruelty of Los Angeles
By Naomi Fry
August 12, 2020
The Netflix reality show “Selling Sunset,” featuring Christine Quinn, a luxury-real-estate agent gearing up for her wedding, is one part house porn and one part office drama.
On the third season of the reality show “Selling Sunset,” now streaming on Netflix, Christine, an agent at the Oppenheim Group, a high-end West Hollywood-based real-estate firm, is planning her wedding to Christian, a wealthy tech entrepreneur. Sleek and Amazonian, with a foot-long platinum ponytail and a taste for severe corsetry, Christine is what has come to be known as a “boss bitch”: a successful agent with a killer instinct. She has always seen herself as something of a “gothic Barbie,” she tells the camera, and her nuptials should match this attitude. “It makes sense, the two of us doing over-the-top everything,” the chatty Karamo Brown, of “Queer Eye,” tells Christine, when he cameos in one episode and the two discuss their upcoming weddings. “Right? So extra,” she agrees, as she walks her fellow Netflix asset through a four-bedroom, three-bath Richard Neutra house that Brown is purportedly considering buying. (The property’s price, 2,999,000 dollars, and the commission that Christine stands to make, 89,970 dollars, flash on the screen.) Christine’s wedding cake, it emerges, will be black with a white filling dappled with strawberries, to mimic blood—“Till-death-do-us-part vibes,” she tells a wedding planner, as her slightly dazed-looking fiancé looks on. Her two couture wedding gowns, too, will be black—“Maleficent vibes,” she informs a bridal-shop attendant. All of this comes together at a ceremony meant to resemble a “gothic winter wonderland,” filmed for the eighth and final episode of the season. As Christine walks down the aisle, friends and family are showered with a flurry of snow. “Oh, it’s actually cold,” one guest yelps, flinching as the flakes continue to come down. “This is a little aggressive,” another agrees.
In the world of “Selling Sunset,” Christine is a limit case, and her over-the-top power-ditz act appears, at times, nearly parodic. (On an early episode this season, she throws a “burgers and Botox”-themed open house, at which, in a grotesque tableau, some guests receive injections to smooth out their furrowed brows as others scarf down patties mere paces away.) Apart from these shenanigans, the show is a tamer thing: one part real-estate porn and one part office drama, portraying the mild conflicts and even milder friendships among the female employees of the Oppenheim Group, an agency run by the natty, impossible-to-tell-apart twins Jason and Brett Oppenheim. It borrows freely from many previous shows, including Robin Leach’s voyeuristic nineteen-eighties gambol “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” Bravo’s “Real Housewives” franchise, and real-estate shows like “Property Brothers,” “Flipping Out,” and “Million Dollar Listing.” The plot is slow going, and often seems scripted. Christine sh**—talks an agent named Mary behind her back, and Mary, predictably, finds out. Chrishell, a Southern beauty whose focus is on properties in the San Fernando Valley, is blindsided when her TV-actor husband files for divorce. The women become upset that Mary is given the office’s prize listings, purportedly because she used to date Jason. These minor dramas are interspersed with corporate-brochure-like real-estate scenes in a series of Los Angeles luxury properties, which always have a pool and sometimes a screening room, a home gym, or a tennis court. Alongside frankly gorgeous aerial shots of the city, in the manner of the mid-two-thousands MTV reality show “The Hills” (with which “Selling Sunset” shares a creator), these home tours are a visual Xanax, sending the viewer into a state of soothing dissociation.
And yet, beneath this seeming tranquillity strums another kind of energy. In the popular imagination, Los Angeles is the city of dreams, but its utopian promise—of eternal sunshine and blissful deliverance from life’s indignities—is often pulsing with the nightmare opposite. In Joan Didion’s “The White Album,” from 1979, her famous recollection of the Manson murders includes a bit of real-estate data: “On August 9, 1969, I was sitting in the shallow end of my sister-in-law’s swimming pool in Beverly Hills when she received a telephone call from a friend who had just heard about the murders at Sharon Tate Polanski’s house on Cielo Drive.” She notes that “no one was surprised,” which speaks not just to the particular period of late-sixties upheaval she writes of, but, more generally, to a current of violence in L.A., which persists to this day and arises in large part from an ever-widening gap between haves and have-nots. In Nathanael West’s novel “The Day of the Locust,” the protagonist, a Hollywood set designer and artist, is working on “The Burning of Los Angeles,” a painting in which he imagines the city going up in flames. The conflagration is “a great bonfire of architectural styles, ranging from Egyptian to Cape Cod colonial,” fuelled by the rage of “all those poor devils who can only be stirred by the promise of miracles and then only to violence,” and who “come to California to die.”
There is a certain morbidity to making a show about the luxury real-estate market in a city that is currently experiencing a gutting homelessness crisis—one that is getting progressively worse in the wake of the coronavirus. “Selling Sunset,” which finished filming before the pandemic began, attempts a brief nod to this issue in an episode that finds Chrishell organizing a charity auction for the homeless, albeit one doubling as an open house for a 4.4-million-dollar property that she is trying to sell in Studio City. But the cruelty of the city—its ruthlessness and egocentrism—emerges on the show in deeper, less intentional ways. It surfaces, for one, in the story of Amanza, a biracial single mom, and the one “Selling Sunset” agent whose problems feel real. At one point, Mary reminisces about her own days as a young single mother working “brutal jobs,” and concludes that this has made her appreciate “the value of a dollar’—now “I want to make sure I have a lot of them in my account,” she says. Amanza’s struggle to gain footing at the agency is, in a sense, part of the show’s push to indicate that the system works: fortitude coupled with sharp elbows can buy you success, security, luxury. And yet the path is precarious. At a staff meeting, Jason announces that the firm has gone more than twenty million dollars into escrow that week, though this is no thanks to Amanza, who, he suggests, is using her kids as an excuse for her lack of commitment to the agency. “I’m sitting at a desk here every day having sold nothing, and I feel like a misfit,” Amanza tells the camera later in the episode, distraught. She also makes an enemy of Christine, and rails, at one point, that the other agent “prances in in her fancy outfits and she makes a joke and she thinks it’s okay, and it’s not—it’s bullshit!” Perhaps inadvertently, she then lands on the heart of the matter: “If I had all that money I’d be dressed like that, too, shit!”
In “Selling Sunset,” winning is everything. The struggle to achieve the most and the best is heard in the near-tuneless, near-identical thrum of the E.D.M. songs that punctuate almost every scene on the show, and which give voice, in their barely sense-making way, to a kind of neoliberal Stockholm syndrome. The examples are numerous: “I love my money and my money loves me / Cha-ching cha-ching,” a woman sings to a monotonous beat; “Let’s go / Gonna show you what I’m all about now / Gonna show you all the things I do / ’Cause I can’t stop the rhythm when it’s flowing through me and you / I’m a money money money money maker,” another chants. “I’m a boss / Tell ’em not today / Swerving on these chickens cluck out my lane / I’m a boss / Out my way / Or just do every little thing that I say,” yet another croons. The contrast between the music’s blandness and its zealous declarations of fealty to the market economy is stunning. Occasionally, however, the songs hint at the darkness beneath: “Living like kings / Comes with a price / You’re rollin’ in riches then you’re rollin’ the dice / Nothing’s ever free, no nothing’s ever free / Is it? Is it?” one track asks. “These streets, they’re mean / You gotta fight if you want to eat,” another warns.
At Christine’s wedding, while waiting for their co-worker to walk down the aisle, the Oppenheim Group officemates notice that, as part of the décor, a number of white swans are floating in a corner of the venue. “Dude, those swans are so well-behaved,” Brett Oppenheim marvels. “They’re not trying to go anywhere.” As I watched the scene, it occurred to me that this statement was a bit moot, and perhaps a little sad: the swans had found themselves as props in downtown Los Angeles, in the gothic-winter-wonderland wedding of a luxury-real-estate agent. Where exactly could they go, even if they wanted to? After the ceremony, “they’ll cook them for dinner,” an agent named Maya laughs. “What did you order?” Jason jokes. “Did you get the fish or the swan?” Brett rejoins. On “Selling Sunset,” you gotta fight if you want to eat.
Naomi Fry is a staff writer at The New Yorker.