'Selling Sunset' and 'Million Dollar Beach House' Are Just The Distractions America Needs Right Now

Netflix's new realty shows feed a country's desire to escape COVID, temporarily

September 3, 2020

As COVID-19 continues to blunt many of the freedoms of public American leisure like walking around a mall, going to a concert, or holding a four-foot conversation, people are getting more accustomed to staying home and relying on streaming platforms for an escape.

Emerging from this nationwide trend is a new genre of real estate reality television filled with lavish estates and mindless loops of bickering. Both things many Americans often complained of pre-pandemic, but now crave as a much needed distraction.

Two Netflix shows in particular lead this emerging trend, both based in coastal cities. Selling Sunset, now in its third season, follows high-end Los Angeles real estate brokerage firm the Oppenheim Group, staffed entirely of women whose expensive wardrobes could pay off three hybrid cars (at least). As the series progresses, lines between personal and professional lives begin to blur for each agent.

After watching the trailer you might write the show off as run of the mill reality pablum, but for those who just cued Selling Sunset there’s a reason you can’t look away. Take for example the scene depicted below. Heather, rocking J. Crew inspired navy pants and tiger orange top, flies off the handle when Christine, failing to pull off a black leather doll dress, forgets to bring a key to their joint showing.

You may not be interested in their babbling squabble, but just five minutes prior viewers were treated to hi-def images of a multi-million dollar home in the Hollywood Hills, similar to the one below.

This realty TV feedback loop proves incredibly effective at drawing viewers into drooling over property they most likely can’t afford or tour, because of COVID, and keeping them hooked with bickering gossip they can’t have with their own friends, because of COVID. Beautiful homes + gossip = never ending distraction.

Netflix applied almost the same strategy to their latest installment in the “Reality Realtor Drama” genre with Million Dollar Beach House. Instead of sun baked Californian women selling beach front mega mansions, viewers are treated to carbon copies of Ralph Lauren bros trying to strike it rich in the Hamptons.

The trailer wastes no time in exercising all the tenets of the former; pan across palatial north eastern estates then, CUE THE GOSSIP! Just like that, the show has sparked lively dinner table debate over whether Noel truly botched the Marine Blvd. showing or Peggy was just overreacting and should totally like, chill.

What Netflix is doing with these reality television shows isn’t unlike how Hollywood curated entertainment in the 1960’s. The specters of cultural change, assassinations, social justice and the Vietnam War were sober realities. It was during this time when television networks created shows with an escapist appeal and fantastical nod. You could join the Robinsons and get Lost in Space with their unnamed robot. Barbara Eden could grant your every wish with I Dream of Jeannie. For three seasons, Sally Field was The Flying Nun helping solve problems on a Puerto Rican convent, and no one seemed to need further explanation.

As Americans went from using broadcast television to streaming platforms to ignore problems, the collective notion of freedom shifted from fantasy to an altered reality. And just like with shows 60 years ago, viewers get a window into worlds that seem like fantasy. Only this time Americans are trying to ignore a global pandemic, and the fantasy involves touring luxury homes and gossiping with friends. Two things that right now, seem pretty unrealistic.

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