The fantasy real estate we see on TV is just that, a fantasy
Why is there such a disconnect between the real world and what we see on TV when it comes to real estate and the costs (and stressors) of putting a roof over your head?
On a recent episode of “And Just Like That …,” Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) buys a light-filled apartment with a massive terrace and a view of the Hudson River. It’s an antiseptic white box with floor-to-ceiling windows in a new building that presumably comes with all the expected amenities. What she’s actually paying for this place is never mentioned — she’s a wealthy widow, money is no object and she has a high class real estate agent Seema (played by Sarita Choudhury) showing her only the best of the best. But a quick Google search found a comparable building with prices ranging between $2 million and $18 million and, eyeballing what we saw on screen, Carrie’s place would probably land somewhere in the middle.
Here’s how she talks about touring the apartment with her friends. “Guys, I just don’t love it.” Then don’t buy it, one of them says. Weeelllll, Carrie reveals, she actually did buy it. “I had to, I have been dragging Seema around for three months. I have nitpicked my way through 46 apartments.”
I can guarantee you no wealthy person said this ever. Nor felt a pang of guilt because their agent was spending an inordinate amount of time showing them property. I know this because I’ve watched enough of the real estate fantasies peddled on the Bravo reality shows “Million Dollar Listing” (there’s both a New York and Los Angeles version) that I can assure you, not one client is worried about wasting anyone’s time or money but their own. And their real estate agents put up with it because a six-figure commission is at stake. (Oh right, the real estate agents are rich as well.)
By the end of the episode Carrie tells Seema: “I hate the new apartment.” Then we’ll sell it, comes the reply! And bloop, bloop, it’s as easy as buying and returning something from a department store. No mention of all the closing costs and the possibility that she may lose money on what is essentially a flip. Nope, just … she hates the fabulous apartment and no sweat, it’s an easy fix.
The thing is, even when you’re rich, there are all kinds of hassles and no shortage of haggling involved with buying and selling property, but like its predecessor “Sex and the City,” the show functions as escapism; it was never not meant to be rooted in anything that resembles reality for most of us.
Where's the anxiety? But “And Just Like That …” isn’t an outlier. When you look around, television as a whole — be it scripted or reality — isn’t particularly interested in capturing, or even incorporating, the headaches that come with housing, whether you rent or own, especially at a time when it’s become increasingly more expensive to do either, even in regions that were once considered somewhat affordable.
The racism that shuts people out from being approved for apartments or loans, or the kinds of predatory housing contracts of the 1950s and ‘60s in Chicago that robbed Black families of between $3 billion and $4 billion? Rarely if ever threaded into the narrative.
Comedy or drama, I’d love to see any of this anxiety reflected in stories because it is such a huge part of our lives. And yet it’s all but absent on TV, which tends to portray homes as simply there — where the subtext is one of comfort and economic stability — or as something wildly aspirational, fueling an onslaught of reality shows competing with the Bravo slate, including Netflix’s “Selling Sunset” and “Selling Tampa.”
Security of 'The Simpsons': A couple years ago the writer Dani Alexis Ryskamp published a piece in the Atlantic about “The Simpsons,” noting that the “most famous dysfunctional family of 1990s television enjoyed, by today’s standards, an almost dreamily secure existence that now seems out of reach for all too many Americans.” Homer’s union job at the power plant supported a family of five: “A home, a car, food, regular doctor’s appointments, and enough left over for plenty of beer at the local bar were all attainable on a single working-class salary.”
But more than 30 seasons in, their life no longer resembles reality for many Americans, where a life of “constant economic uncertainty — in which some of us are one emergency away from losing everything, no matter how much we work — is normal.”
Here’s a general observation about television: When characters are rich, that’s usually integral to the story. When they’re struggling or experiencing financial precarity, that’s also integral to the story. But then there’s this vast middle where the costs and concerns associated with just finding and living in a place simply do not exist.
Want reality? Try horror: Anjulie Rao is a Chicago-based journalist who writes about how we live — or die — by the built environment and I was curious if she had any theories about how this gets reflected in pop culture.
“The most realistic depictions of the reality of owning property are in horror movies,” she said.
Oh, this is true!
“You often find that families move into a house that’s super haunted and they’re asked, ‘Why don’t you move out?’ and they say, ‘Because everything I have is tied up in this real estate!’ I just recently rewatched ‘The Conjuring,’ which is very much about people being trapped in their homes because of financial reasons. Or look at horror movies like ‘Poltergeist’ or the new ‘Candyman,’ which actually talk about the land and what happened there that created a catastrophe in order for this property to become available.”
She also mentioned recent episodes of the podcast “You’re Wrong About,” which focus on the real life “Amityville Horror” origin story, based on that of a couple who moved into an enormous house with their children in 1975, about a year after a person shot and killed six members of his family there. A month after they moved in, they moved back out.
Even though they got the house for a steal, thanks to those grisly murders, here’s host Sarah Marshall: “Important to note that they bought a house $30,000 higher than their max price.” To which co-host Jamie Loftus responds: “My instinct with them is they realized that they were $30,000 in debt and needed to manufacture something more profitable” than the father’s line of work was bringing in.
Or maybe they needed to manufacture a reason to get out so soon after buying besides something as banal as: We’re drowning in debt and this house may be our financial ruin.
Ghosts of maintenance: “There’s a lot to be said of the idea that once you purchase a house, you’re stuck with it,” said Rao. Maybe the ghosts of these stories are really just a metaphor for all that deferred maintenance hanging over your head.
“Whereas when you compare that with ‘And Just Like That …’ where she’s like, ‘I’m not feeling it anymore,’ that to me is more in line with the American dream of real estate — that you can pick up and unload property as frequently as you want.”
What we watch, Rao said, “influences the way we dream about our future. I would love for there to be some kind of plot component to some of these shows or movies that really talks about why this couple you’re watching was able to buy this house. No one’s talking about devalued land and segregation and the histories of destruction. Instead, the lavishness is the pinnacle of American idealism, which is: I will be rich one day.
“I love television,” she added. “But the more that we can meet what we see on television with policy changes that create real protections and investments in infrastructure, the less we’re going to feel betrayed by the fantasy we see on TV.”
By the way, Rao launched a seasonal newsletter last month called “Weathered,” which will explore ideas and issues around the “built environment in the wintertime.”
Why the winter?
“I’m really interested in the conditions of change. So when people talk about things like gentrification or climate change, winter represents a microcosm of how we live differently and adapt to change for a period of 3-5 months. I’m hoping this series of essays prompts people to think about the kind of adaptation we’re capable of — and then projects that onto a wider lens of how we can be more adaptable to other types of change.”