Certainly, this peculiar situation may explain the breakout success of Selling Sunset, Netflix’s reality show about Los Angeles real estate agents, which premiered in the spring of 2019 but only became a true pop culture phenomenon with the launch of the third series in August. In some respects, it stuck to a familiar Real Housewives-like template of bitching and weaponised glamour but its USP was in the background to that: the parade of vast, characterless, and mysteriously over-bathroomed mansions and compounds we got to view, complete with price and basic listing info, as if we could be among the prospective buyers. In offering us this, it provided us with a vicarious experience of luxury living that, was as another New Yorker writer Naomi Fry put it, “a visual Xanax, sending the viewer into a state of soothing dissociation.” (And if you inhaled Selling Sunset quickly enough, there was more where it came from: later in August came the inferior Million Dollar Beach House, also on Netflix and sold as “Selling Sunset but in the Hamptons”).
More generally, lifestyle programming came into its own: here in the UK, I found myself drawn back to the seemingly incessant iterations of the Masterchef franchise for the first time in years, with their endless rounds of familiar challenges. Meanwhile caramel-voiced food writer Nigella Lawson graced British viewers with a new cookery series just in time for the doldrums of the country’s lockdown two – and, from her now-infamous pronunciation of microwave to her leopard-print knife, it once again demonstrated the alchemy by which she converts domestic aspiration into golden high-camp.
But in drama, too, there were a number of shows that seduced because of their low stakes at a time of alarmingly high ones off-screen. To take two examples, both from Netflix, Ryan Murphy’s Ratched was a pointless exercise: a predictably unconvincing, incoherent prequel to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest wholly uninterested in taking itself seriously. But its sterile hyper-stylised aesthetic, which had something of a department window display about it, had a perversely soothing effect. And chess drama The Queen’s Gambit, while hugely overpraised, with its perfectly poised heroine and mid-century modern sets, also made a virtue of its superficiality.