“Will own no house,” Elon Musk wrote on Twitter at the start of May, revealing he was selling “almost all physical possessions”, including his real estate.
In his inimitable way, the billionaire Tesla founder was tapping the prevailing mood of 2020. In January, Salesforce boss Marc Benioff set the tone, telling a Davos audience that capitalism was dead. As coronavirus spread, we hunkered in lockdowns and learnt to live without commerce. We could bake our bread, grow our lettuces, upcycle our wardrobes and brush our teeth with twigs. The new hero of UK popular culture was Gardeners’ World presenter Monty Don.
It didn’t last long. Within a month, Mr Musk had sold a Bel-Air mansion for $29m to a Chinese tech titan without even having to list it, proving that the ascetic life needn’t be shabby. It was a move straight out of Selling Sunset, a reality show about real estate so steeped in the philosophy of moneymaking, so brazenly venal and ugly, that even fans called it “the vile corporate nadir of reality television” and “the most tone-deaf show on TV”.
Yet its allure was undeniable. Viewers looked up from stitching their home-made face masks and were hooked. By the end of August, it had shot up the Netflix charts. As evictions and foreclosures soared, the show offered an escape into the world of the super-rich, untouched by recession.
What explains the popularity of a show so out of touch with its time? Selling Sunset is set in a real estate brokerage in Los Angeles, The Oppenheim Group. It follows the fortunes of a cast of glamorous realtors led by self-appointed super villain Christine Quinn. The show’s title refers to the geographical heart of the action, Sunset Boulevard — although viewers quickly get the sense that if Ms Quinn were offered the opportunity to sell the actual sunset, she would simply squint and ask what the commission would be.
It is no secret that property shows are ratings winners. The success of HGTV, a whole channel devoted to real estate and interior design programmes, established that long ago. But Selling Sunset is in a different league. While HGTV’s flagship show, Fixer Upper, saw a folksy couple in Waco, Texas, roll up their sleeves and expose hardwood floors to make a few thousand dollars on a property that might be worth $300,000, the Selling Sunset agents curl a Botoxed lip at any listing under $3.5m (the median cost of a Beverly Hills home).
It is tempting to wonder whether Covid-19 has put the brakes on that kind of excess. Reports from private wealth managers and brokers suggest not. The super-rich are doing just fine. Those who can afford it are pondering moving out of denser cities to more spacious properties of the kind LA offers. Stephen Kotler, the LA-based head of brokerage for Douglas Elliman’s western region, says sales have been “extraordinarily strong”.
While the number of top-end transactions dipped during lockdown, the value of super-prime sales (those over $10m) in LA was second only to Hong Kong from March to June, research from Knight Frank found.
Perhaps Selling Sunset’s appeal is that it is so much a show of the pre-pandemic world. There’s not a face-mask in sight at the lavish open-house parties the brokerage throws in a $35m mansion with a wraparound pool and garage space for multiple supercars. After so many months of homeworking, do we miss the camaraderie of office life so much that even the workhouse-luxe aesthetic of The Oppenheim Group headquarters now looks attractive?
Or maybe the show appeals to a darker impulse. There’s an undeniable thrill in a workplace culture so cut-throat that one agent takes a break from her own wedding day to sell the venue just hours before her guests arrive, pumping her fist as she makes a $200k commission. It’s all so 1990s.
It’s possible, too, that nostalgia for this kind of excess is really a longing for a safer time when a plague did not threaten us and California’s sky glittered blue instead of orange with smoke from raging wildfires.
True, watching the show feels a little sickening, but switching off only reminds us of the existence of another megalomaniac real estate tycoon with a golden tower, who might yet be the leader of the free world for another four years. If capitalism really is dying, then 2020’s death throes are something to behold.