Selling the dream: Reality TV at the edge of reality

The film critic Siegfried Kracauer once argued that ‘stupid and unreal film fantasies are the daydreams of society, in which its actual reality comes to the fore and its otherwise repressed wishes take form.’ Netflix’s Selling-franchise once again proves the point. 

Selling Sunset (L to R) Mary Fitzgerald, Vanessa Villela, Chrishell Stause, Emma Hernan in season 4 of Selling Sunset Cr. Patrick Wymore/Netflix © 2021

One of the most fluid and uncertain parts of any reality TV show is the question of both what and who the show is actually for. In a show like Love Island, is it for an audience that wants to see strangers make a genuine connection; people that watch for drama and the unintended comedy; people who see themselves reflected on screen, and consider using the show as a step in the reality-TV-to-influencer pipeline that it’s made so popular. And that’s just for a dating show. For other reality TV shows, ones that relish in the rarefied world that they provide the viewer with access to, exactly what kind of show they’re trying to be becomes more difficult to work out; the relationship between the show and the viewer becomes prickly and uncertain. There’s nowhere this is clearer than across the ever-expanding Selling franchise on Netflix: right now there’s Selling Sunset (four seasons as of 2022), and Selling Tampa (one season as of 2022), with a third, Selling the OC, already in the pipeline. Maybe, as it always seems to be in these shows with real estate, the market for shows about realtors themselves is perpetually booming.

But the Selling franchise feels like it struggles to balance if the show is really about the realtors themselves – although it devotees plenty of time to their drama, bringing in just enough of their partners and children to remind you they exist – or just about using them as a golden key to unlock doors that the average viewer of Selling Sunset or Tampa (indeed, the average human period), would never be able to access. The worlds in these shows, with their nonchalant celebrity, discussions of millions of dollars as if they’re pocket change, feels unreal. This is the biggest challenge that the Selling franchise seems to face – whether it wants to face it or not: what happens to this show when it does come into contact with reality.

And, unfortunately, in 2021 (when the fourth season of Sunset and the first of Tampa dropped on Netflix), this is a reality that’s still defined by Coronavirus; the shadow it casts on quote-unquote normal life, and the very real impact it still has on many people. But, to watch one of these shows, you’d think that the pandemic had been and gone; that nobody in any of these casts had been exposed to it, and neither had anyone close to them. It’s just not something they talk about; it simply doesn’t impact their version of reality. When the third season of HBO’s Succession – another dream/nightmare on the lives of the super-rich – was in production, it was revealed that this most recent season (which aired in October 2021), would simply ignore the pandemic altogether. Sarah Snook (Shiv Roy in Succession) said in an interview that “unfortunately, none of the world’s really wealthy people were going to be affected by the pandemic.” This seems to ring true for the casts of both Sunset and Tampa; it gets mentioned a few times, in an offhand way, like a developing story in a far-off world. And even then, it’s done in a way that undercuts the ways in which so many people’s lives were impacted by the disease. In Selling Sunset, realtor Amanza talks about the difficulty of being with her children 24/7 because of schools shutting down, immediately before saying that she missed the nanny and the housekeeper. It’s this invocation of service staff that comes closest to setting out the political stall of the franchise. In Selling Sunset, a face mask becomes a signifier of class more than anything else: early on in season 4, Christine – simultaneously the sun around which Sunset and its realtors revolve around, and a black hole devouring everything else in sight beyond Christine – is planning an elaborate baby shower, which includes having wood panels put over the pool in her house so that it becomes an outdoor social space. The people doing this work for Christine are wearing masks, but she isn’t, and neither is the party planner that comes to visit her and touch base on the shower itself. This moment feels echoed by a moment in the first season of Selling Tampa, when Juwana’s mother is getting ready for a virtual birthday party on zoom, something that stands in stark contrast to the baby showers and dog birthday parties that serve as locations for drama in Selling Sunset

It isn’t just the pandemic that these shows choose to ignore, but all politics. For all of the time that these realtors spend describing the importance of the natural world in what drives prices for their properties – elaborate views in Sunset, proximity to the water in Tampa – there’s no mention of what a rapidly changing climate (or the political inaction surrounding it) would do not only to their businesses – where, presumably, the buck stops for them – but the world itself, which they’re continually finding new ways to mine for extra profit, a million here or there on the asking price of a mansion in the Hills. One of the things that was mentioned to me when I was planning this piece was a quote from Siegfried Kracauer: “unreal film fantasies are the daydreams of society, in which its actual reality comes to the fore, and its otherwise repressed wishes take on form.” By design or not, the Selling franchise finds itself exploring these ideas: the unreal nature of the world the shows take place in captures the desire not only for wealth and status – which these shows, and Sunset in particular trade in – but for a simpler world, one where major issues simply don’t affect you.

Halfway through the fourth season of Selling Sunset, there’s an elaborate and dramatic dinner party that creates a paradigm shift for the show moving forward to the end of the season; the sun/black hole of Christine is repositioned, and everyone’s relation to her has changed. The scene ends with a darkly ironic toast that feels like it could be the end of a slightly heavy-handed play – which I know, because the first play I ever tried to write ended exactly like this – with, in the wake of drama and bruised egos and shifted alliances, someone raising a glass and toasting to “the good life.” In a way, both Sunset and Tampa are about advertising – ironically, rather than selling – a good life: one where you can be rich, have a beautiful house surrounded by nature, and buy anything your heart desires. But it’s a life that’s divorced from reality, taking place in a gilded doll’s house rather than the real world. And so much of this show is gilded; the typeface for the titles, the ways in which they advertise the number of bedrooms and bathrooms, square footage and price tag of a house, as if the audience were a prospective buyer. 

One of the most common sequences in Selling – there tend to be several in each episode – is the camera roaming through a house that one of the realtors will be showing. It moves through each room in the house, from beds and baths to pools, movie theatres, and recording studios. The rooms are as empty as possible during these sequences, as if by having an absence of anyone else there, it creates the space for the viewer to project themselves into elaborate mansions. But the houses are about social capital as much as financial; more and more as the fourth season of Sunset goes on, its houses are defined by the celebrity houses that are either buying or selling, from NBA player Thomas Bryant, to one of Marvel’s latest eponymous heroes: Simu Liu. The invoking of celebrity names is used in both shows in order to show just what an exclusive world they are: from the Calabasas in Sunset, populated by Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber, and Drake, to the list of celebrities reeled off within moments of the first episode of Selling Tampa: Tom Brady, Derek Jeter, and Tom Cruise. They’re only mentioned by name; these celebrities are hiding behind doors that even the golden keys of Selling Sunset and Tampa aren’t able to unlock, but to mention them is to invite comparison, a kind of wish fulfilment: if you lived here, you’d be like all these celebrities. The question becomes if being like these people, and entering into their world, is worth the price of admission, which doesn’t seem to just be millions of dollars in real estate, but something else, something more difficult to define. If Selling is about fantasy as a way into repressed wishes, then to buy into this dream would mean to step away from reality: at the height of the Hills, the real world would look so small anyway. The encroachment of reality is met with a short, tense silence, but then is waved away with a movement of the hand; at the beginning of season four of Sunset, new realtor Vanessa joins the Oppenheim group, and tells the girls that she was born and raised in Mexico City. There’s a pause here, as if nobody knows quite what to say next; the shadow of Trumpism still seems to loom – which it does even more so in the real world Florida that Selling Tampa ignores, one governed by Ron DeSantis, who didn’t want to be seen as a “climate change believer” in 2018, and whose predecessor had state employees call climate change “nuisance flooding” – with the first question that Vanessa gets asked being “how long have you been here?” The reality of what it really takes to be invited into the upper echelons begins to rear its head, but the moment is diffused after Vanessa says she wanted to come somewhere where she would be accepted. And it’s true, throughout the season, she is accepted in the Oppenheim Group, but that acceptance seems tied to performance – in both Sunset and Tampa, an inability to perform, no matter how momentary, causes the threat of being fired to linger over the heads of these women, revealing just how fragile the construction of this world is. It’s a world of excess; the dream and nightmare of capitalism co-existing.

Early on in Selling Tampa, the realtors at Allure describe what they do as “selling the dream,” and there’s some truth to this. There’s something about the Selling series that offers an American Dream; what Chrishelle describes, from her newly purchased $3 million home as having “my friends, [and] a little piece of paradise. What more could a girl want?” But this is a dream that requires the people that participate in it to remain asleep, and the constant ways in which the Selling franchise runs up to reality – from the unmentioned spectre of climate change, to the realities of living through a pandemic – before retreating back to the edges of it, illustrates that the fantasies and desires it puts on screen are getting closer and closer to a rude awakening.

Sam is a writer, and one of the founding editors of Third Way Press. Their writing on culture and identity has been published by Frieze, the LA Review of Books, Neotext, and other places. They have written two books, All my teachers died of AIDS (Pilot Press, 2020), and Long live the new flesh (Polari Press, 2022).

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