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Nicole-Ann LoboOctober 23, 2020
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As nearly 600,000 people experience homelessness in the United States on any given night, and as that number only continues to grow, “Selling Sunset” basks in opulence in many ways disconnected from that reality.

“Selling Sunset,” which just released its third season on Netflix, explores the work of the Oppenheim Group, a boutique brokerage on Los Angeles’s Sunset Strip founded by identical twins Jason and Brett Oppenheim. The group claims to sell a quarter of a billion dollars in real estate every year, but they are better known for the seven agents who comprise the public face: a bleached, botoxed and meticulously outfitted group on whose personal drama the series primarily focuses.

Amid suspenseful music and tense negotiations, you almost lose sense of the immorality of a bachelor needing six bedrooms in a city where thousands sleep on the streets.

There’s 40-year-old Mary, the firm’s top-performing real estate agent. The other women in the agency accuse her of being favored by Jason, her best friend and onetime partner. Christine, a tall, theatrically dressed blonde, veils her love of creating tension among the group by declaring that she is simply being “honest.” The third season culminates in her extravagant, self-described “gothic winter wonderland” wedding to a retired software developer. Heather, a former Playboy Playmate, orders water for lunch and proclaims that she “doesn’t really get hungry” while flouting her romance with HGTV host Tarek El-Moussa. A fight breaks out when Christine accuses Heather and Tarek of calling the paparazzi on themselves.

“Selling Sunset” is overflowing with moments like these. Episodes have titles like “Billionaires Have Compounds,” and the pressure of making deals on real estate property is only escalated (for the viewer at least) by the melodramatic aesthetics of reality television. Amid suspenseful music and clips of tense negotiations, you almost lose sense of the immorality of a bachelor needing six bedrooms in a city where thousands sleep on the streets.

The show and its agents, though, don’t always take this high living as the way things are for everyone. At times, they seem almost self-aware about the excess. For instance, at a party in a rented mansion, an 85-inch television protrudes from the ground as Brett asks the young bartenders hired for the evening, “You ladies ever seen something like this?”

“Selling Sunset” paints an unapologetic portrait of our brutal capitalist culture.

At the same time, “Selling Sunset” paints an unapologetic portrait of our brutal capitalist culture masquerading as ladder climbing, the misnomer of “good old American work ethic.” Maya, another agent, is about to have a baby and is given a onesie that reads “Future Real Estate Agent.” All the women in the agency rave about how cute it is. Mary shows a client a house—which is incidentally also the site of her wedding—mere hours before reciting her vows. She declares that she “can’t let this wedding get in the way of work!”

While the show provides a window into the conspicuous consumption of the Los Angeles financial and celebrity elite, that is not what’s most concerning about it. There are plenty of reality television shows whose appeal is rooted in a sort of class voyeurism, like “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” and the “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.”

“Selling Sunset”’s celebration of financial mobility tends to mask the structural injustice of economic inequality and the limits of individual action.

What’s more insidious about “Selling Sunset”is the way it offers audiences a point of entry through semblances of relatability. The narrative arcs of two of the show’s most popular characters, Amanza and Chrishelle, serve as foils to the high-class culture of the brokerage. Both had firsthand experience with poverty before becoming high-selling agents. This is not to say they don’t assimilate into the Oppenheim Group well: Both of them are glamorous, stylish and charismatic.

Yet the show’s framing of their once “rougher” backgrounds results in a narrative that declares the accumulation of wealth and status is what the American dream is all about. Chrishelle experienced homelessness as a teenager and grew up (in her words) as “the smelly kid”; Amanza cleaned bathrooms to make ends meet when her ex-husband couldn’t pay for child support. Now, both are elite agents selling multimillion dollar homes, and their “brushes” with poverty humanize them as characters on a hit reality television show.

At times, some of the other agents are antagonized by Amanza and Chrishelle discussing their struggles. Chrishelle’s mentions of her childhood poverty draw eye-rolls from agent Davina, who wonders why she has to bring it up. “Does she do it like, for sympathy?” asks Davina.

Catholics know that all of us should be given a chance to flourish.

Meanwhile, Amanza is locked in a custody battle with her ex-husband, which frustrates the other agents when she isn’t present in the office. At one point, Amanza breaks down to the camera: “I’m scared and don’t always know what I’m doing. I have so many questions and I’m scared to even ask the questions because these are my closest friends and it’s hard to be vulnerable around people [when] you’ve always been the tough one.” When her first deal falls through, Amanza fears that she’s failing her kids in her attempt to keep a roof over their heads and feed them.

But “Selling Sunset”’s celebration of their financial mobility and personal tenacity tends to mask the structural injustice of economic inequality and the limits of individual action. In other words: Whether or not you can escape poverty is all dependent on your moral character instead of the circumstances you grew up in. Catholics know, however, that it is not just about the gritty individual rising above her station in life, but that all of us should be given a chance to flourish. As Pope Francis writes in his new encyclical “Fratelli Tutti,” to promote the good of the people, society is called “to provide everyone with the opportunity to nurture the seeds that God has planted in each of us: our talents, our initiatives and our innate resources.”

In one of the last episodes of the first season, the agents all volunteer at Food on Foot, a nonprofit that feeds homeless people in Los Angeles. The irony of wealthy real estate agents in matching Oppenheim Group tank tops handing out food to homeless people is painful to watch. Jason opines about how much Food on Foot means to him: “It really gives people who want to pull themselves up off the streets, it gives them an opportunity.” He poses with a giant $20,000 check to the charity. (Viewers may recall that in the previous episode, he’d bought a vase for $35,000.)

As Pope Francis writes in his new encyclical, to promote the good of the people, society is called “to provide everyone with the opportunity to nurture the seeds that God has planted in each of us.”

After volunteering, Chrishelle gets emotional, and her surprised coworkers comfort her. Jason says that, while it was interesting to learn Chrishelle had been homeless, it made sense given her character: “I can tell she’s a tough woman, and I didn’t know why, but it’s in keeping with her personality, you know she doesn’t back down, she doesn’t get intimidated, and that makes sense. Because if you come from that type of a background to where she is right now, that tells you something about somebody.”

But what does it tell you? This sort of messaging often slips into popular entertainment with disturbing consequences. It’s rooted in the delusion that Americans can just “pull themselves up by the bootstraps” when the continued polarization of wealth in America and increasing prosperity of the few relies on the increasing disenfranchisement of those at the bottom of the ladder. (For instance, 12 billionaires became $792 billion richer during the Covid-19 pandemic. This while 29 million Americans reported they don’t have enough to eat and 15 million Americans are behind on rent.)

Shows like “Selling Sunset” suggest that everyone should aspire to states of conspicuous consumption.

This is not to suggest, of course, that we should never celebrate those people who manage, against all odds, to escape poverty. But shows like “Selling Sunset” aren’t doing that so much asthey are romanticizing wealth and opulence. They suggest that everyone should aspire to states of conspicuous consumption. Chrishelle, for instance, claims that “When you treat people in a bad situation with respect, that’s when they really feel uplifted and maybe they can garner some change in their life.”

While this is true for our personal relationships, that individuals can thrive or wilt depending on how they are treated, as a whole the show steeps notions of economic mobility in American society in a language of meritocracy. It neglects the various intersectional social factors—racial, educational and geographic, to start with—that result in relatively slim odds of escaping poverty, especially compared to other European countries with more robust social welfare programs.

In a later episode, Chrishelle decides to hold a charity auction at a house she is showing, to “not only sell these amazing multimillion dollar homes but to be able to give back to people that don’t have housing.” In the next breath, she clarifies: “It’s basically that I’m doing a big broker’s event, except that I’m adding a few auction items and some music.”

The third season of “Selling Sunset” has garnered millions of viewers during an economic crisis, as political inaction has left millions unemployed, with skyrocketing levels of housing instability and food insecurity. It celebrates ostentatious consumption while only faintly nodding to some kind of atonement for that consumption in the form of “relatable” characters or charitable “giving back.”

In fact, the very existence of “Selling Sunset” only reinforces the biases inherent to American striving and hyper-individualism. Shows like this can lead to a kind of class despair and perpetuate political inaction. As a society, we must recognize that the onus for economic change should be less on individuals to “raise themselves up” out of poverty, and more on reforming the system that keeps them poor in the first place.

More: TV / Economics

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