Welcome to Home Watching, a column about the wild and wooly world of renovation television from a self-proclaimed expert in the genre. Close readers of this column will wonder about the double byline this month. Well, it’s a meeting of the minds between Megan, expert in home design shows, and Kate, expert in the Bravo cinematic universe, which have magically crossed paths in Netflix’s new Buying Beverly Hills.
Megan Reynolds: I have a low tolerance for Netflix’s home renovation reality show offerings, only because they’re often heavy on the drama and light on the stuff that I actually care about, which is the renovation and (often hideous) staging of homes that I cannot afford. Selling Sunset, a perennial favorite, leaves me cold, so I assumed that Buying Beverly Hills would be more of the same. Boy howdy, was I wrong! I don’t recommend watching all eight episodes in one sitting, as I did, but again, maybe I do? Perhaps the best way to really get into this kind of programming is to park yourself in front of the TV and let the theatrics, manufactured or otherwise, wash over you.
Mauricio Umansky is the CEO and founder of The Agency, a real estate agency/cult(?)/cash cow that buys and sells homes in, yes, that’s right, Beverly Hills. His staff is small and also young; his daughter Alexia, and his stepdaughter Farrah, both work there. For some ungodly reason, it appears that the majority of the staff has slept with each other. The realtors tour big houses, bicker with each other over power grabs, and totter around Beverly Hills and its surrounding environs in expensive and impractical footwear. It sounds a lot like Selling Sunset, but for reasons I’m still trying to figure out, it is much, much better.
Kate Dries: I’m already here to correct you: the staff is actually quite large, as they are proud to point out, but in classic reality fashion, we’re seeing but a sliver of them—the Umansky team, aka Mauricio and his aforementioned children, and a few other teams within The Agency, which, as we’re told many times, now spans many cities around the world.
Unlike you, Megan, Buying Beverly Hills was tailor-made for me, a lover of such programs (I simply can’t agree that this is better than Selling Sunset, which was made by aliens and sent to Earth to test humans of their ability to tell the difference between VR and real life) and expert in the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, a show that regularly features Mauricio and his children because his wife Kyle is an OG of it—she’s been on RHOBH since Season 1. Given the amount she and Mauricio wear Agency hats on that program, I’m mostly surprised this one didn’t end up on Bravo proper, the behind the scenes drama of which I would watch a show of in and of itself.
Megan, let’s dive in: what appealed to you about BBH, as I’m now calling it? I’ve heard very little chatter about it from my Bravo friends, so I’m curious who it appeals to.
MR: I think the most appealing thing to me is not the houses (they’re second) or Mauricio (he’s rather attractive, I’m sorry), but that the show itself is a great case study for the perils of nepotism. To your point, the staff that BBH shows is but a sliver of the army Mauricio has assembled, but it really does seem like the ones who are benefitting the most from The Agency’s vast well of opportunities are Alexia, Farrah, and Joey Ben-Zvi, a close friend/perhaps paramour of Alexia’s from childhood, who seems to be given preferential treatment over some of the other staff that are not directly related to the Umanksys.
One of Alexia’s major issues throughout the entire show is that no one is taking her seriously as a realtor and, I’m sorry, I get it? Farrah and Mauricio’s relationship seems a little different and more businesslike, probably because they are not related by blood, but Mauricio clearly prefers Alexia above all. And that preference filters down to the listings she gets. When I saw that Alexia was the agent for Milldale, her childhood home, I wasn’t even surprised! Even though that house was going for at least $6 million, it becomes clear that a home of that worth is small potatoes for The Agency. In comparison, Brandon, an Agency staffer who is not related in any way to the Umanskys, tells Mauricio that he cleared $6 million in sales total for a year. The difference is staggering! I bet Brandon’s better at his job than Alexia is! And yet!!!!
Honestly, I could watch hours of this program, if only for the houses, which are nicer and more aspirational than the soulless architecture of Selling Sunset. We can talk about the properties, as I have many thoughts on Joey Ben-Zvi’s family home, all of which are largely positive. But I think discussing the Umansky family empire in the context of this show feels pressing.
KD: Avoiding the nepotism in the room would be impossible with this show, but I was fairly impressed by how hard everyone leaned into it. Re: Milldale, that situation was the only one where Alexia being given a listing of that size kind of made sense to me? Like, the fact that she lived in that house means she does know it intimately, and it’s such a cute peg to be able to say "the realtor selling it grew up here."
But as usual with these types of shows, it’s what’s not being said about the family and the money and the homes that I’m more interested in. The story of how Mauricio founded The Agency is glossed over—in fact, he started in real estate at his brother-in-law Rick Hilton’s (yes, father of Paris and Nicky) agency Hilton & Hyland, which resulted in major tension between himself and Kyle and Rick and Kathy, Kyle’s sister, for years after Mauricio left to start his own business, including rumors of accusations of stealing agents (which Mauricio has denied).
I also found some of the way they present Farrah to be strange; it almost felt as though the producers (or the other cast members) wanted to make it seem as if she was his biological daughter for the point of emphasizing the family aspect of things, and by proxy, the nepotism tension? They’re obviously extremely close, but at one point, one of the agents asks Mauricio if he’s excited to walk her down the aisle one day when she gets married—Farrah has a biological father of her own, and as far as we’ve been led to believe on RHOBH, he is very much alive and in the picture! (Which, to be clear, doesn’t preclude Mauricio from being involved in that event in that capacity, just seemed strange.)
MR: Thank you for this context on Farrah’s parentage, because I was actually pretty confused? Kyle Richards’s genes are strong and I really did think for at least one episode that Mauricio was Farrah’s biological father. And yes, unlike you, I am easily swayed by beautiful homes and hair made wavy with flat irons, so I never really consider the behind the scenes stuff, especially when confronted with homes such as the ones BBH is shilling.
Some homes of note: Glendower, better known as the Los Feliz Murder House, has good bones, even though it was also the site of a grisly murder. Windsor is an absolutely stunning 1914 mansion replete with bold but appropriate wallpaper choices and nine bathrooms (one for each bedroom, very thoughtful). Whoever staged this listing appreciates Glamour; it’s basically a well-executed version of Cara Delevingne’s mansion, and is tasteful, even though it’s loud.
But the place that I yearn for is Camden, the ancestral home of Joey Ben-Zvi. (Technically, it belongs to his great aunt, but that’s close enough). It’s located in the Beverly Hills flats (very desirable location, very rare), and could be the subject of an eight-episode limited series on HGTV. Though the house has fallen into disrepair, the brief glimpses we see are enticing—there’s kitschy orange wallpaper in the pool house, and in the right hands, a renovation of this property could be something out of a Douglas Sirk melodrama, except not in the Northeast. To me, it is perfect, and it upset me every time they merely showed glimpses of the interior and then talked about how they're going to sell it to someone who will completely tear it down.
There’s absolutely no way that I’d ever be able to afford any of the homes shown on this series, but the difference is that they feel manageable. The houses of Selling Sunset are giant monuments to disposable wealth and greed and are therefore soulless, but dare I say that Beverly Hills feels approachable? (Yes, there are a few homes on BBH that are disgustingly big and flashy, but in comparison to the more modest properties, they seem even more garish than they are.)
KD: I totally agree that there’s a wider range of property types than we see on the many other shows in this market (pun intended) right now. It’s a welcome change! But the show also still falls victim to the "have I seen this before?" syndrome that is affecting these luxury real estate shows. There can, shockingly, only be so many $139 million properties within a certain mile radius, and I, like some other eagle-eyed viewers, felt like there was overlap in what I was seeing with some other series, even if some of that was just due to the extremely bland "modern" aesthetic new mansions hold onto. Some is also because of the sheer glut of content (this site included!) around real estate these days, which the show purposefully or otherwise notes when Joey pokes fun at realtor Ben Belack, who starts every video on his YouTube channel by introducing himself as "Beverly Hills super realtor."
The main way BBH seems committed to differentiating itself from Selling Sunset, or Million Dollar Listing: LA, is that it’s purposefully focused on younger, up-and-coming realtors, as well as more established ones, and talks about the career trajectories of each more. Whether real or played up (if I knew cameras were going to be filming me showing a house, I’d probably triple-prepare for fear of embarrassment on national television), you see young agents falter and mess up, which at least adds for more dimensionality than the usual basic competitiveness that is the drive of these shows. There’s also a level to which there’s some admission real estate might not be their number one passion (gasp!), like with Sonika, a former American Idol contestant who seems to have given up on a singing career but is lackluster when it comes to committing to her new one. Which I think works? Despite my obvious bias towards checking it out, I was convinced this show was going to be like watching paint dry, but by the end, I felt sort of impressed that they managed to put a slightly new spin on at this point old tropes.
MR: I was also surprised to find myself enjoying the show, specifically because of its focus on younger realtors, most of whom didn’t seem as thirsty for the limelight as their counterparts on other shows of this nature. There’s something nice about watching a bunch of 25 year olds fumbling around as they learn the ropes of their newly chosen career, figuring out whether they even want to be doing what they’re doing. That’s the most relatable part of this entire enterprise, and without it, BBH would be just as soulless as its predecessors.
Top image courtesy of Netflix.
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