First COVID-19 came for The Bachelor franchise. Then it postponed Real Housewives and forced a reimagining of the daily talk show. But let the history books show that, try as it might, the pandemic failed to defeat a human instinct so natural that we are already experts at it by age 5: our need to spread and consume gossip.
Netflix has been an unsung hero of the last five months, creating one of the pandemic's first pieces of cultural bedrock and filling up our queues with a healthy supply of mindless, guilty pleasure television. But the streaming giant's most enticing pandemic Cinderella story comes from a group of ostentatious realtors who are finally cashing in on what viewers want to buy.
Selling Sunset, a deliciously Bravo-esque slice of reality television, follows the employees at the Oppenheim Group, a high-end real estate brokerage firm in Los Angeles, as they try to balance the opulent and volatile housing market alongside their opulent and volatile personal lives. The show failed to make a sizable splash after premiering on Netflix in March 2019, garnering minimal critical attention save for some lukewarm reviews. But when it returned to streaming in May 2020 with its sophomore season, the show was released upon a cooped-up, drama-deprived populous. Netflix clearly read the room, announcing in May it would "surprise" drop season three just two and a half months later. The world was parched for tea, and Selling Sunset's cup overfloweth.
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Led by soap actress Chrishell Stause and the villainous Christine Quinn, Selling Sunset's cast follow the reality TV blueprint of being glossy, gorgeous, and gossipy. Their conversations aren't groundbreaking nor are their fights ruinous, but as VICE points out, pandemic-era gossip doesn't need to be. There's no better time than now to lower our storytelling standards, and reality television was already considered the bottom of the barrel for quality programming. The genre is predicated on over-the-top theatrics, but Selling Sunset's strengths don't lie in its absurdity (although, to be clear, it is often absurd). The show meets the moment because it reminds us how blissful it feels to care about petty, innocuous drama.
"Gossiping is innately human; we're never going to stop," entertainment journalist Elaine Lui told The Cut in a May article. "It's human to want to communicate and to tell stories to each other, and share stories with each other."
"Telling stories" to each other would be a generous interpretation of what happens on Selling Sunset, but it wouldn't be entirely wrong. Watching Quinn call Mary Fitzgerald a "f--king idiot" at a real estate showing and witnessing the insult slowly make its way back to Fitzgerald is a form of restorative entertainment, a tonic disguised in a tattle-tale.
Gossiping and those who do it are often ridiculed, but as The Atlantic divulged in 2018, it can actually be a legitimately healthy form of socialization. In some ways, gossiping can "even make us better people," facilitating in "promoting cooperation, boosting others' self-esteem, and performing the essential task of the human family," writes Ben Healy. I won't pretend Selling Sunset turned me into Mother Teresa, but watching it did bring me joy, giving me that sweet release of serotonin that's been irregular since February.
I'm clearly not alone. Other writers have described pandemic reality television as a valuable coping mechanism, while others go so far as to say we need it "now more than ever." Since Selling Sunset returned in May, interest in the show's drama (and the real-life characters that drive it) has surged. The show's gains in popularity are evident in Google Trends data, which show a significant spike following the second season's release — nearly triple that of its interest following the series premiere in 2019.
Even This is Us actor Justin Hartley, who never directly appears on Selling Sunset but whose marriage to Stause serves as a narrative focal point of the third season, reached a new Google Trends peak immediately following season two, only to trend even higher after season three's release. Data for the third season, which debuted last week, is incomplete — but current buzz indicates yet another high point.
Stause, Quinn, and the rest of the women reaped massive social media benefits from Selling Sunset's summer surge, doubling their Instagram followings (and priming them for lucrative careers as influencers, should they so choose). Viewers may come for the gaudy real-estate porn, but they stay to watch the characters dish the dirt both on and off screen.
Like all reality television, there's a natural inclination to wonder How much of this is scripted? It's a fair ask, one that Quinn has acknowledged vaguely, although there's only so much to be blamed on a production team. Davina Potratz's $75 million house is still on the market, Hartley did file for divorce from Stause, and Quinn did actually dole out botox shots at an open house. As long as the show has a few facts, it's much easier to sell the accompanying fiction.
Selling Sunset doesn't just provide a nice distraction from our problems, though. Sure, part of its appeal is that it takes us out of our current hellscape, but it also reminds us what it feels like to sweat the small stuff. The days of eavesdropping on public transit are over. Snooping by the workplace water cooler has been put on hold. By allowing the bombastic drama to build and marinate, the show reminds viewers they can care about the little things even amidst an unrelenting heaviness.
By no means should Selling Sunset be considered great pandemic art, but it might just be the pandemic's best cultural remedy. As Quinn says in the final moments of season three's opener, "I never start the drama, I just finish it." And oh, is it a thrill to sit back, relax, and watch her close the deal.
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