The chaos of reality TV is an addiction so comfortable, so absolute that anything less tends to feel abnormal. The barefaced fabrication of Love and Hip-Hop, the demure, petty drama of Real Housewives—it’s all easily digestible. But recently, my heart has pulled me in a polar direction, toward a show with an introverted heart: Terrace House, a Japanese reality series made by Fuji Television that now appears on Netflix, available in English subtitles. There’ve been four editions of the series since 2012, including Boys & Girls in the City (Tokyo) and Aloha State (Hawaii). The most recent, Terrace House: Opening New Doors, set in Karuizawa around wintertime, was released to Netflix in December 2017, and part 2 in March 2018. (Part 3 is out July 31.) I am late to the party and it’s the quietest of parties.
For the uninitiated, here’s a warning: this show is devoid of all the delicious anarchy and pretense emblematic of reality TV. Terrace House instead swims and labors in minutiae. The show has been labeled boring, but that’s a hallmark that seems to say more about our consumption of reality TV and our interpretation of other cultures than it does of the franchise itself. What happens there is for sure uneventful, in the same way everyday life just happens without event until big events happen. In fact, Terrace House fits the definition and portraiture of reality more than the average reality TV fare.
It’s a testament to the production value (the look, feel, and decidedly emo soundtrack) that I was able to watch 16 episodes (part 1 and 2) over the course of a few days and leave wanting more, or that I crept through social media to seek out cast members to follow. When I say barely anything happens on the show, I mean barely anything happens. Nothing wild at least. But there is beauty and verve in trivial things, the type that makes me yearn for the blinks and stares that made The Hills such an utter mellow masterpiece.
Everyone in the Terrace House cast reminds you of someone, though unlike your circle, they are all attractive. Ami is an uncomfortably quiet model who’s still figuring out what she wants professionally and out of love. Yuudai is a stunted 19-year-old aspiring chef who says all the wrong things and seems to forget other people exist. Takayuki is a hot 31-year-old snowboarder. There is inevitably a love triangle.
Yuudai has a thing for Ami, but is neither mature nor swaggy enough to pursue her with efficacy. Taka tries and fails, too. He’s too grown, and she’s too nonchalant. Neither of them are her type. Shion (a half-Japanese model) and Tsubasa (an ice hockey player) meanwhile build a doting, will-they-or-won’t-they romance at the painstaking pace of a snowflake’s graceful descent to the ground.
The amount of time the cast members spend eating at a table while the camera zooms in on their meals—during which someone inevitably says, “Mmm, this is good” (Or, “It’s a subtle flavor,” Taka says of a soup Yuudai made)—makes me feel like everything in my life is worth a 24-hour lens, as long as it’s glamorously shot. With this show, I am peeking through the window and seeing a neighbor across the street who inexplicably has no curtains, in the kitchen grabbing cereal. It’s a fleeting voyeuristic fascination, and in this case a cultural outsider’s gaze, too; there’s a fetishization to the way we’re viewing this food, the language, and mannerisms presented and distorting it through our lens, whether personal or social.
The clear template for Terrace House is The Real World—in fact, a co-host repeats the same synopsis at the top of each episode: “Terrace House is a show about six strangers living together, and we observe how they interact. All that we’ve prepared is a beautiful home and automobiles. There is no script at all.” The key word is “observe.” The hosts-narrators-commentators are a group of people I don’t know who wear enviable cool outfits, including actor Azusa Babazon and comedian Ryōta Yamasato, whose pure joy comes in rooting against the “villain” in the house, who is more an unlikable person than a classic reality villain. (It’s Ami.) The hosts all sit in a living room set and discuss what they gleaned from what they watched, petty and fascinated just like us, which is where all the pomp and personality comes in like an ice cold blast.
Intermittently, throughout each episode, the action is paused to give screen time to their mocking reactions, judgments, and questions, many of which mirror the viewers’, making Terrace House something of a muted sports match. “There’s no hint of romance with her yet,” Ryōta observes of Tsubasa in Episode 2, as the hosts recap the previous episode. There are no ratcheted up confrontations. (In Opening New Doors, the volume of the house is chillingly low until a show favorite, Sheina, makes a surprise comeback.) But there are realtime conversations about things like how romantic attraction works and professional goals. Shockingly, some of the cast members have real jobs and leave the house during the day to do those jobs! And then they return to the house and commune.
I want to say MTV, which has identity issues with The Real World, currently on hiatus, could stand to learn something from Terrace House (there are plenty of subtler formats MTV could try)—but that’s partly ignoring the strands of Real World DNA already contained in Terrace House, in the way it constructs and deconstructs the lives of its clueless, aspirational young people. It makes you wonder what, if anything, this show is even about, or why you even care.