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On Selling Sunset, these Barbies sell a recession-proof fantasy

And Chrishell helpfully enters her villain era.

Two women in bikinis.
These Barbies sell Sunset.
Courtesy of Netflix
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.

Netflix’s Selling Sunset is many things, but it has never been about selling sunsets. To be honest, it’s also not really — as the show’s logline suggests — about Los Angeles real estate. The hit reality show is, in actuality, a soap opera about gorgeous women and the friendships and light bullying they’re capable of, hidden beneath the gauze of big houses, sunshine, and Southern California B-roll.

At its peak, Selling Sunset is premier ambient television: consequences are few, stakes small, and grievances extremely petty. But for the past couple of seasons, my favorite reality show has gone wobbly.

The problem is everyone got too comfortable.

Every reality TV show needs a villain and for the past five seasons that’s been Christine Quinn, the series’s platinum blonde antagonist. She played her role — being a beautiful mean Barbie for television — a little too well, to the point where the rest of the Selling Sunset cast began icing out the ice queen. At the same time, Quinn’s co-stars were getting along with each other swimmingly — going to lunches, being happy for each other, smiling all the time. As pleasant as that is, that is not why people watch reality television.

If I wanted something that peaceful, I would have invested in a saltwater aquarium.

Christine left the show before this sixth season, plunging Selling Sunset into a sink-or-swim moment: find another villain within a cast of women that desperately don’t want to get their hands dirty, or watch the sun finally go down on this promising show. Thankfully, at least one of them figured out how to sell this new season.

Selling Sunset needs a villain to work. Luckily, Chrishell realized this.

Like showrunner Adam Divello’s other famous series, The Hills, Selling Sunset has operated on a simple premise: Two beautiful women cannot get along and the city of Los Angeles isn’t big enough for the both of them. For five seasons, the two women were Christine Quinn, a glamorous and hilariously bitchy ice queen, and Chrishell Stause, a bright and plucky newbie. In wrestling terms, Christine is the heel, the villain; and Chrishell is the face, the people’s hero.

The only thing Christine and Chrishell had in common was that they both worked at the Oppenheim Group, a real estate agency that’s touted as the best agency for rich people who want to buy and sell houses in extremely affluent parts of Los Angeles. There, alongside fellow agents Maya Vander, Mary Fitzgerald, Davina Potratz, and Heather El Moussa (neé Rae Young), they clickety-clacked on their laptops and in their heels, doing business.

What made Christine such a force was she understood that her real job wasn’t real estate, it was being on television. Those duties included wearing spectacular outfits, driving flashy cars, presenting an aspirational fantasy life, and an acute self-awareness. One minute she’d be accusing Chrishell of getting listings by flirting with the boss, and the next she’d be complaining how much her feet hurt in Louboutin stilettos. Seconds later, she’d parlay that into talking about how the other women wear cheap shoes on their big feet.

While Quinn created fantastic television, her antics appeared to wear on her fellow co-stars. They seemed less and less keen to play along with her stealing clients or putting them on the end of one-liners like “only my tits are fake, I’m not fake.” They more or less isolated Quinn, minimizing the scenes they filmed with the queen bee. Quinn ultimately left the show, announcing her departure after the fifth season premiered in 2022.

Don’t worry! Christine Quinn is doing fine. She published a book and goes to fashion shows and has become an Instagram darling. Her own series is certainly on the horizon.

The bigger question was if Selling Sunset would be fine. The show was losing its most compelling star and its villain. Who was going to start fights? Who was going to throw a burgers-and-botox party? Who would complain about the other women’s cheap shoes?

Enter Chrishell, the show’s reigning protagonist.

The only way to describe Chrishell this season is that she’s like a professional athlete who watched game tape of her team’s latest loss. She figured out what they did wrong, what they needed, and decided to take it upon herself to save the game.

Chrishell Stause, wearing sunglasses.
Chrishell turns in an MVP performance on this season of Selling Sunset.
Courtesy of Netflix

This season, Chrishell opens up more of her personal life on screen, particularly her coming out and new relationship with non-binary Australian singer G Flip, with whom she says she’s found freedom and happiness.

With her newfound perspective, Chrishell also assesses what went wrong with her relationship with Oppenheim Group owner Jason, and coolly speculates that his new girlfriend, a 24-year-old named Marie-Lou, may not be the best thing for her 46-year-old ex. While her castmates explain away the age gap by saying Marie-Lou is mature for her age because she’s European, Chrishell is unconvinced.

Chrishell has also co-opted a Christine Quinn specialty: being in on the joke. Chrishell, who in being sustainably successful on reality television clearly possesses an immense amount of intelligence that can’t be quantified by standardized tests, isn’t afraid to play the bimbo when necessary. After Heather tells her that, as a vegan, she can’t eat anything “with eyes,” Chrishell finds herself tripping over the problem that eggs don’t have eyes (technically true), nor do oysters (untrue, oysters do have eyes). Her own peepers narrow as she yells, “But they don’t have eyes! Oysters don’t have eyes!”

This isn’t to say that it’s all smooth sailing for Chrishell. During the same “oysters have eyes” cast trip to Palm Springs, she clashes with Nicole, an agent who allegedly has been at the agency for years but rarely appeared on camera. Nicole’s main gripe is that Jason has been favoring Chrishell, to which Chrishell reacts by jumping off the top rope. On their totally normal coworker getaway trip, Chrishell tells Nicole to stop talking about her. It’s a common reality TV move, the queen bee asserting her dominance over the new girl. Newbies want airtime, though, so Nicole doesn’t stop and Chrishell drops a bomb.

“You don’t have a lot of points and you’re on drugs,” Chrishell tells her. “It doesn’t seem like there’s only wine in your glass and you’ve been acting a little cracked out all night.”

The other women are aghast, not just because of the insinuation that Nicole is high on narcotics but because Chrishell said as much with cameras rolling. They can’t break code and say the last part out loud. This prompts Chrishell’s closest allies, like Mary, to use reality TV shorthand, saying she “hit below the belt.” Nicole gets a drug test to prove her innocence.

“Did someone actually watch her pee into the cup? And are the results being sent to an unbiased third party ... or are they being sent to Nicole?” Chrishell tells the camera in a confessional, smirking and signaling that the show’s once very sweet protagonist is now ready to be a villain when necessary.

Selling Sunset is a recession-proof fantasy

The thing keeping this season from achieving peak reality TV is the fact that there are still women in the cast who aren’t ready to play ball; they won’t do the work the show requires. Bre, a new addition, is introduced to us as one of the women with whom Nick Cannon has his 12 children. Getting a glimpse into Bre’s life seems like a tantalizing premise, but she immediately goes into bummer mode and tells all the women that talking about her personal life with Cannon is off-limits.

The boundary Bre sets is weird, and fellow cast member Chelsea Lazkani essentially says as much — mainly by referencing tabloids — but stops short of fully breaking the fourth wall. Since Chelsea can’t, I can: No one was cast on this show because they are good at selling real estate. Bre, like the rest of her costars, was cast because her personal life is intriguing. Putting up a “do not enter” sign means you shouldn’t be on television.

Similarly, Mary is in her sixth season on the show and her second season as the office manager. She continually reminds her coworkers that office managing is “too much” work, although for the most part all we see her do is chat with the other women; the office logistics seem to take care of themselves. Like, no one at the Oppenheim Group has any of their laptops plugged in or any paperwork at their desks.

Nine women sit in a real estate office facing two seated men.
Not everyone fits on the Oppenheim Group couch.
Adam Rose/Netflix

The biggest operational challenge at the office this season is that the couch isn’t big enough for team meetings. Whenever a meeting is called, there’s a mad scramble to get a spot on the couch that allows one to be filmed at a flattering angle. The women squish and pose on the too-small couch, like glamorous sardines. If Mary were a good office manager, she would find a way to keep Davina out of that unflattering ergonomic chair that skews the shot’s composition.

If human resources is in fact part of her job, Mary seems conflicted when it comes to the various HR violations these women commit against one another. Mary needs to balance rampant workplace violations with the reality that office drama is good television. Somehow her biggest workplace kerfuffle is quite 2023: Chrishell wants to “work from home.” What exactly that means — filming conflicts at her place, showing houses from her living room, skipping the cramped couch meetings — is unclear.

But that’s as close to real work struggles as we get. It’s the Oppenheim Group office — laptops with no chargers, no paperwork, the hectic dash to smush in pretty — that is perhaps the most convincing argument that this entire show is pure fantasy. During those tiny-sofa meetings, they talk about how they’re still selling $15 million homes to mystery buyers, a business seemingly untouched by any economic precarity.

Do these women know about the massive tech layoffs? Do they care about inflation and rising interest rates? Do they understand that higher interest rates affect mortgages which in turn affects buyers and sellers? Does anyone know who Janet Yellen is?

Maybe the answer to all these is yes. Maybe Davina knows exactly who the Secretary of the Treasury is. But that’s not the show I really want to watch.

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