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Selling the American Dream on ‘Million Dollar Listing: LA’

The show includes gold cornices, real estate enmity, and parables of striving and assimilation.

Rachel Shukert
September 04, 2015
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Beverly Hills in Octoberturtix / Shutterstock.com

I’ve been in LA for two years now, and, quite suddenly, I feel like I understand the city. When we first got here, I’d respond to cracks about various neighborhoods and the types of people who inhabited them with a blank stare, still goggling. Everybody here seemed to have a dishwasher, a walk-in closet, or a yard—sometimes even all three!—without being even remotely fazed by the unbelievable luxury of it all. (Live in Manhattan long enough, and you become, for lack of a better word, somewhatSoviet in your idea of what constitutes a middle-class existence.)

But now I find myself saying things like, “Playa del Rey? Are you crazy? You’ll never see anyone again–you might as well move to San Diego” and chuckling knowingly at listicles like this one. (For the record, I refuse to park at the Grove, probably do pay too much to live near exorbitantly priced breakfast burritos, and if “Hancock Park Adjacent” doesn’t mean “hoping one day to have three shows in syndication,” I’m not sure what does. One day, $6 million house on S. Hudson! One day!)

I’ve been late coming to Bravo’s aspirational real estate extravaganza Million Dollar Listing: LA, which began its eighth season on Wednesday night, but oh! What I’ve been missing! Larger in civic scope and less character specific than its counterparts Shahs of Sunset and The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills—which deal with very particular subcultures—Million Dollar Listing is a near-perfect primer on the foibles and pretensions of Los Angeles County. It’s ideal for the newbie Angeleno who is just beginning to get it–and develop a few of her own. In terms of peripheral characters–clients, co-workers, employees–this show has them all: the demanding trophy wife-to-be, the garrulous cosmetic dentist, the studiedly casual straw-fedora wearer who sold some mysterious Internet company to a mystery buyer for what seems to be several million real American dollars and is literally your worst Tinder nightmare made flesh.

And then there are the million dollar realtors themselves: Josh Altman, recently arrived from New York City (and Million Dollar Listing: New York, a show I never watched when I lived in New York, for fear I might burn down a bank in a suicidal gesture of violent socialism), determined never to get out of bed for less than a million dollars in sales a day. Then there are Altman’s sworn enemies, the business partners James Harris and David Parnes, two immaculately turned-out Brits who look like they should be grinning in the background of any Berkshire wedding that Pippa Middleton attends. Watching Altman aggressively argue the price of a property with them, his chin pugnaciously tilted, and his, shall we say, less-than-Nordic profile on display, you feel like you’re watching Tom Hiddleston get into a screaming match with the junior rabbi from your parents’ synagogue, or maybe one of those uncomfortable scenes from a Merchant Ivory movie designed to display the snobbish, if less than bloodthirsty, anti-Semitism of the British upper classes – at least, until you do a little quick Googling, and find out thatJames and David are Jewish too! Well, you know what they say. Dress British, think Yiddish–and if you’ve got the right accent, you’ll even get away with it.

Presiding over it all, radiating the benevolent vagueness of a great and untouchable star, is Million Dollar Listing MVP Josh Flagg, an original cast member and the only native Angeleno in the bunch. The grandson of the recently deceased fashion mogul Edith Flagg, who escaped the Anschluss in order to make a billion dollars introducing formal polyester into the wardrobes of American women, Flagg is true Beverly Hills Jewish royalty, with all the knowledge and extensive early plastic surgery that such a social station requires. Seeing him break down with grief in his grandmother’s massive Wilshire corridor penthouse, a neighborhood once described to me by my friend Richard as a place for “bubbies who have done very well,” was one of the highlights of the episode for me.

But my favorite storyline involved Josh’s efforts to sell the Beverly Hills “Persian Palace” of his high-school acquaintance Sherwin, the aforementioned absurdly wealthy dentist. Josh is forced to share the listing with another agent, who advises lowering the price, as any potential buyer would have to gut the place of its gold cornices and lavish marble floors to make it habitable. Armed with his knowledge of the large Persian Jewish community, Josh reasonably suggests that they just find a “Middle Eastern” buyer for whom that might actually be a selling point. That gold and marble might even help tack a million or so onto the sale price.

The affectionate condescension with which Josh makes the sale was fascinating to me. It’s the story of Jewish immigration time and time again—of the more established community reaching out warily but judgmentally to the newer, less assimilated arrivals, all playing out in real time, and on Bravo, no less. I’m riveted–and newly driven to achieve my own version of the American Dream: one day, I want to have enough money for one of these guys to sell me a house. Driveway paved with gold optional.

Rachel Shukert is the author of the memoirs Have You No Shame? and Everything Is Going To Be Great,and the novel Starstruck. She is the creator of the Netflix show The Baby-Sitters Club, and a writer on such series as GLOW and Supergirl. Her Twitter feed is @rachelshukert.