Reality TV is not reality, an oxymoron so widely understood it’s hardly worth repeating. But that fact does become noteworthy when the spontaneity, and often tragedy, of real life actually makes its way to the front of the cameras: Kim Kardashian getting robbed at gunpoint in her Paris hotel room playing out on Keeping Up With the Kardashians; Taylor Armstrong dealing with the death by suicide of her abusive ex-husband on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, leading to an argument that became an arguably callous meme. The highly produced narratives of any unscripted show constitute a bubble, and a bubble can always be punctured.
Even by the standards of such an artificial genre, the Netflix show Selling Sunset is a proudly artificial show. A workplace drama set at a West Hollywood real estate group, Selling Sunset trades in all the most surface-level stereotypes about the city of Los Angeles. The homes for sale are glittering glass palaces set high in the Hollywood Hills; the agents who sell them are pencil-thin bottle blonds who talk freely about boob jobs and Botox, with a couple of brunettes thrown in for diversity’s sake. Spearheaded by Adam DiVello of Laguna Beach and The Hills, Selling Sunset is the kind of slickly aspirational lifestyle content that’s designed as pure escapism—perhaps for no one so much as Angelenos themselves, who can see the distance between the city they live in and the multimillion-dollar compounds the show puts on display.
But in its third season, now streaming as of this Friday, Selling Sunset puts a crack in its own facade. To date, two different cast members have allowed their weddings to double as plot devices; one even turned a listing into her wedding venue and sold the property on the same day she tied the knot. Season 3, however, features the show’s first divorce: that of Chrishell Stause, former soap actress and now-ex-wife of This Is Us star Justin Hartley. The news of Stause and Hartley’s split first broke last November, while Selling Sunset was still in production. More than eight months later, viewers get to see how tabloid headlines translate into a TV story line—one that’s told squarely from Chrishell’s point of view. Plenty of public figures get divorced. Not as many have a former spouse who’s wearing a microphone pack when they get the news via text. And yes, Chrishell did learn of Hartley’s divorce filing via text.
The action starts at the end of the season’s fifth episode, when an office gossip session at the Oppenheim Group gets interrupted by an alert from TMZ. The next chapter opens with Mary visiting Chrishell at the Four Seasons, where she tearfully explains she found out Hartley had filed just 45 minutes before the news broke, without a face-to-face conversation. “Because of the way this went down, people want answers,” Stause says in a testimonial. “And I fucking want answers.”
What follows is a fascinating mix of raw emotion and deliberate response. Stause’s shock and devastation come off as far more genuine than the show’s other ginned-up interpersonal conflicts: Heather Young taking offense at an innocent remark about dealing with stepkids; “goth Barbie” Christine Quinn’s ability to work up an apoplectic rage at the mildest perceived slight. But her choice to show her grief, and allow herself to get remarkably candid about the effect of Hartley’s sudden fame on their relationship, is a conscious one. Shortly after her conversation with Mary, Chrishell decamps to St. Louis to recuperate with family. She makes sure to take a film crew with her.
In the months between the divorce and Season 3’s release—including the entire promotional cycle for Season 2, which came out in May—Stause has been relatively quiet about the split. In December, she posted a quote to Instagram noting how “It’s hard to watch people change right in front of you”; that same week, anonymous sources alleged in TMZ that Hartley misstated the couple’s date of separation to avoid paying spousal support. Stause has never addressed the dynamics at play as directly as she does on Selling Sunset, likely in part because she knew her side of the story would come out eventually. “I feel like outer elements have reared their ugly head and asserted themselves in our relationship,” Stause says on the show. “It’s not normal to meet somebody and they become wildly famous.”
As inappropriate as a surprise divorce filing may be, there’s an obvious irony to Stause objecting that a divorce shouldn’t play out in public. “This all could’ve been avoided if we’d done this privately,” she laments to her older sister on the car ride from the airport. Later, Stause expresses relief at getting out of the spotlight: “I feel like I’m coming from a situation where all the focus is on me,” she says of a family dinner captured by professional equipment. Stause notes she has to be careful what she says from a legal perspective because her now-ex is a public figure, but she’s already sketched out a damning portrait of someone who let fame get to his head and left his longtime supporters in the dust.
But by blindsiding his then-wife, Stause would surely argue, Hartley set the tone himself. To an outside observer, the mid-production timing is odd: Couldn’t he have waited a few months to make himself look better—or, more cynically, until Stause didn’t have an entire production’s worth of resources to shape her own narrative? But in the absence of an explanation, we get a firsthand look at the fallout.
There’s precedent for reality stars using their platform to shape the popular perception of their personal lives. The Kardashians practically pioneered the process, turning the tabloids into de facto promotional outlets for episodes a few months down the line: the robbery; Lamar Odom’s overdose; Kylie’s falling out with Jordyn Woods. Who can blame Stause for using the tools at her disposal to follow in their footsteps, especially when those tools make for such compelling TV? At Quinn’s wedding, Stause explains why she felt obligated to show up, despite the circumstances. “You—I was gonna say you only get married once,” she winces. “Fuck, that’s depressing.”
By opting to make her unexpected upheaval a central part of the show, both Stause and Selling Sunset get the best of both worlds. There’s the jolt of seeing such unguarded expression, even insight, in such a manufactured setting; when Stause tearfully admits to herself that a relationship someone’s already given up on isn’t worth fighting for, plenty of noncelebrities will find themselves nodding along in recognition. Still, the producers also shore up Stause’s plight with more manufactured fireworks. One supporting cast member tries to both-sides the situation by defending a man she barely knows, a take that makes zero sense except as a reality star’s blatant bid for more screen time.
Stause is upset by the confrontation, but ultimately takes it in stride, dropping a classic reality TV tagline with ease. “Maybe Davina’s right,” she speculates. “There are two sides to every story, and maybe it’s time I start writing a new one.” Posing with a glass of wine while she takes in her new view of the hills, it feels like Stause already has.