We have real-estate reality-TV shows in the U.K., but they’re nothing like Selling Sunset.
Here they involve plain-clothed plain couples, hoping to upgrade from a small house in a country village to an ever so slightly larger house in a different country village. Or they’re ambitious thirtysomethings redesigning their homes and causing great drama when they miscalculate just how long the concrete takes to set.
I say “great drama,” but next to Selling Sunset, “drama” feels like a poor choice of words. It’s like comparing a Catholic church to the Playboy Mansion—they both might technically be old buildings run by a worshipped figure who tells visitors to get on their knees and open their mouths, but they’re hardly comparable. You could take an English property show, roll it in glitter, fill it with Botox, and shove a firework up its rear, and it still wouldn’t come close to Selling Sunset. Perhaps that’s why we Brits love it so much.
Selling Sunset, the Netflix reality-TV show that focuses as much on exorbitantly priced Los Angeles mansions—technically the subject of the show—as it does on the stiletto-wearing, plastic-surgeried real-estate brokers who bring the drama, is insanely popular in the United Kingdom. The properties, the outfits, the gossip … I have a WhatsApp group that comes alive solely at the end of each season, to discuss and analyze every screenshotted scene.
I had imagined that the Oppenheim Group, the real-estate agency that Selling Sunset centers on, would be swarmed by locals just trying to get a glimpse of the stars. But apparently it’s not, and most of America is fairly uninterested. Somehow, the show is less popular in its home country than it is across the pond on our little island. It’s hard to quantify by how much, as Netflix doesn’t release viewing figures, but at its peak there were proportionally 50 percent more Google searches in the U.K. than in the U.S. for the TV show. And I think I know why.
In England, there’s an allure to Selling Sunset because of its foreignness. It’s the same way so many Americans glorify Downton Abbey for its quaint Britishness, or the way the French hate Emily in Paris for its stereotypes. In my head, every person in L.A. is going home to their hillside mansions in their five-inch heels, having spent the day arguing with a frenemy at an extravagant dog-birthday party. I have no reason to question anything I watch.
You could take an English property show, roll it in glitter, fill it with Botox, and shove a firework up its rear, and it still wouldn’t come close to Selling Sunset. Perhaps that’s why we Brits love it so much.
It’s not just that we don’t spot the exaggerations. It’s that it feels so far removed from anything English. Just like how Yanks get all hot and flustered for an English accent and some Cockney rhyming slang, we are hypnotized by the ultra-luxurious houses that don’t really exist here.
We don’t have multi-floor mansions on the sides of hills, and even the most expensive homes in England would never have infinity pools and basketball courts. (In fact, a pool is sometimes seen as a “naff” addition to a nice house, and those who do spring for such luxuries would likely hide them from public view.)
The most expensive houses you’ll see up close are old castles that are more likely to host an antiques road show than a burgers-and-Botox party.
All this is not to mention the people. In England, real-estate agents aren’t self-employed like they are in the U.S., and they can’t make the eye-watering commissions that fuel a good part of the drama in Selling Sunset.
If your partner tried on an ill-fitting navy suit, you might warn him against it by saying, “You look like an estate agent.” Whereas from watching Selling Sunset, I can safely conclude that real-estate agents in the U.S. look like sexy drug pushers, where the drug is a multi-million-dollar home, and if someone told me I dressed like one I’d weep for joy. (Let it be Christine Quinn.)
But the main reason I think the show has been so popular in England is because it’s Trojan-horse reality TV. In England, there’s an overwhelming snobbiness when it comes to the genre of reality TV. People like to claim they don’t enjoy it; they like to pretend it’s below their English intellect.
That’s where the beauty of Selling Sunset comes in. It’s a reality show disguised as a property show. It tricks you into watching a few episodes for the real estate until you’re sucked in by the drama.
Because the truth is, no one’s above reality TV. It’s like people who claim they hate musicals on principle alone but then make an exception for Hamilton and won’t stop singing show tunes. You can pretend you don’t like reality TV, but after two episodes you’ll be cursing Justin Hartley and calculating commissions.
Selling Sunset is property porn, and like most porn, it’s not real. But living in England we’re far enough away that we can get lost in the fantasy and believe it all. For many of us it’s our first time watching this kind of show, and now that we have, we’re hooked.
Selling Sunset, Season Five, premieres April 22
Flora Gill is a London-based writer