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Selling Sunset is fantastical, absurdist office drama

Selling Sunset and the irresistible allure of Barbie-on-Barbie pettiness.

Christine Quinn and Chelsea Lazkani on Selling Sunset are ready to sell some sunsets.
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

In the world of Selling Sunset, very beautiful women do most of the business of selling multimillion-dollar homes for an entity known as the Oppenheim Group, a real estate firm owned by twin bald men.

These women run that business in heels that are not made for running, though some have said they could sprint in their towering heels if needed. That’s all hypothetical, though, since they’re never in a rush, never pressed for time, never stuck in traffic in their expensive candy-colored cars. They move effortlessly between Hollywood Hills estates and their impeccable office, wearing very beautiful outfits — short pencil skirts that seem risky to sit in, puffed royal sleeves, sparkly sharp sequins, monogrammed trench coats, skinny suits — that are never repeated.

Created by Adam DiVello, the man who gave us the hall-of-fame fake reality show The Hills, Selling Sunset sparked itself to life in 2019. It was initially billed as giving us an authentic peek into the sun-soaked universe of high-end Los Angeles real estate — a sphere of existence hidden from normies who don’t have enough money to access it.

But the show made a self-aware turn into a fantasy office drama, and it’s incredible TV. The pressure to sell these massively expensive homes has all but vaporized, and no one is really that keen on being the top seller of sunsets at Oppenheim. Instead, the show offers a heightened look at what happens at work when most of the average worker’s concerns — money, stability, even professional goals — disappear, and the beautiful and poreless can instead focus on their allies and their very, very annoying enemies.

It’s in this mode that Selling Sunset becomes something cannily accessible.

While the average person might not be dressed in designer down to their socks or zip around Los Angeles talking about closing deals, normal people in all sorts of careers do engage in pettiness for all sorts of reasons, including fostering alliances (studies have shown that gossip can bring people closer together), alleviating boredom, and the sheer enjoyment of cooperative complaining. It’s only natural that a show that invites you to partake in glossy workplace drama is absurdly irresistible.

At the center of Selling Sunset is protagonist Chrishell Stause. The name Chrishell is a portmanteau, created by Chrishell’s mom to honor a gas station (Shell) and a gas station attendant (Chris) who helped her during her unexpected delivery.

Chrishell began on the show as an actress who’s brand new to real estate, a Nick Carraway in this Gatsbian Malibu Barbie world. Chrishell spends a lot of time in the first seasons learning how to sell mansions, but more importantly, getting along with the rest of the agents and assimilating into the fantastic plastic life of luxury real estate merchants.

As she learns, we learn too.

When she has to make alliances within the office, we find out which agents will be the easiest to win over. When she starts to speak in real estate agent, we pick up the differences between the Valley, the Hills, and Calabasas. When she has to wear pumps, we know which ones will go with her outfit.

The tension of the early seasons is whether Chrishell’s winsome, sunny attitude will be enough to succeed at Oppenheim. Any suspense is extremely minimal, however, because Chrishell is one of the show’s two main characters. The show would not go on without her, and she receives what is known in the reality show world as “an extremely favorable edit.”

Chrishell’s diametric opposite is Christine Quinn, an icy veteran at Oppenheim. Christine’s candid approach to her own artificiality makes her arguably the show’s realest character. She freely admits that she got her breasts done and that the Botox in her face makes it slightly difficult to emote. If people aren’t as forthcoming about their own fakeness as she is, Christine posits, then they must have something to hide.

Chrishell, with her organic earnestness and free-range sunniness, perturbs Christine. Christine’s territorial nature and gossip-laundering bug Chrishell.

The first couple of seasons of the show wrapped Chrishell and Christine’s antagonistic dynamic around the premise of real estate-related competition. Whoever could sell the most sunsets, I guess. Early on, the show framed Christine’s numerous listings as an assertion of dominance and Chrishell’s closings as small victories, signs that she would one day rival Christine’s success. The tension was pinned on who could make more money.

But as the show progressed, the producers and people behind the camera, and perhaps Chrishell and Christine themselves, began to abandon the charade that the show is about selling homes and lean into the superior, soapy office drama about two coworkers who would like nothing more than the other one to die. The overarching storyline over the past two seasons is that Christine can’t stop talking to the press about Chrishell’s love life, following the end of Chrishell’s marriage to This Is Us actor Justin Hartley.

The fight between Chrishell and Christine splits most of the remaining employees at Oppenheim into two camps. Heather and Mary, who are slightly interchangeable and tired of Christine’s queen bee status, gravitate toward Chrishell. Davina, a terminally sour human, becomes Christine’s henchwoman for a couple of seasons before switching sides. Chelsea, a new recruit this season, slides into Davina’s old role and terrorizes Davina for being disloyal. Amanza, who is disinterested in selling homes and good at reality television, and Maya, who is good at selling homes but disinterested in reality television, float in the middle. Emma, who owns an empanada empire but still sells homes, and didn’t date Ben Affleck, fails to distinguish herself at all.

Thankfully, there is no HR department at Oppenheim, and because Selling Sunset is a television show, these very beautiful women just sort of exist to be mean to each other and never really get in trouble.

Christine and Chelsea are very beautiful, but they probably have kompromat on you.
Mitchell Haaseth/Netflix

A darkly hilarious recurring conceit this season — that perfectly summarizes the trivial rudeness of their work relationships — is the desk assignments. Christine’s desk was given away during maternity leave, and there’s a mess about who’s sitting where when she returns. The women who don’t like Christine hem and haw, and it’s all sort of relatable because moving desks is a pain — all those cords, phones, monitors, computers, papers, everything that’s stuffed into drawers. It’s especially annoying if you’re moving to accommodate someone who doesn’t like you. The women talk about the act as an ordeal, an arduous chore that would take all day. After much complaining, the dust settles and deeply forgettable Emma tells her coworkers that she will be the bigger person and “move” desks.

She huffs. She puffs. Then she just folds her laptop up and takes five steps to her new desk.

Clack. Clack. Clack.

Just because these women aren’t particularly concerned with being the best seller on the show, it’d be a grievous mistake to say that the show is completely devoid of ambition. Plenty of reality television stars have parlayed their fame into becoming celebrities. Think about the Kardashians, or the stars of DiVello’s previous big hit The Hills. Selling Sunset’s agents aren’t outliers. I’d wager that they have a keen eye on parlaying their show personalities into real-life stardom, and knowing that adds a glorious layer of self-awareness to the show. They’re in on their joke, the camp of dressing up like Barbie dolls, never eating at their endless lunches, and throwing their heels into every clack.

In doing so, they’ve heightened petty drama to absurdist proportions just for our enjoyment. It’s the joy of office politics and eavesdropping without actually being in that dysfunctional office. They’re meaner and prettier than we’ll ever be, and somehow have turned committing OSHA violations on their coworkers into full-time jobs. I hope they’re getting paid handsomely to do so.

Give them raises. Give them the world. Selling Sunset is perfect and I can’t look away.