This may come as a complete shock to you, but I watch a fair amount of Japanese TV and movies.
I don’t really know where it came from. Is it genetic? Or cultural? Or maybe does it have something to do with the fact that my mother controlled the remote with an iron fist (much like how she controlled a lot of my media diet, apparently), and because she wanted to watch Japanese shows, the rest of us had to suffer along because I mean what were we going to do, not watch television?
We may never know.
Anyway, thanks to Netflix and their expanding set of Japanese original and co-productions, I’ve been able to enjoy a lot of Japanese programming (they vary from being pretty good to very cheesy in a way that reminds me of shows I watched as a kid, but if you haven’t watched Midnight Diner yet, definitely go watch it). This means, of course, that the algorithm now just throws pretty much every Japanese show at me, including something I had never heard of called Terrace House: Boys & Girls in the City.
Look, it’s Japanese, so +1 to Netflix for figuring out that much about my viewing habits. But it’s also a reality show with no real point — they move a bunch of young, attractive people into a house with a bunch of cameras. Sometimes they start dating. Mostly they hang out and look good and become friends and pursue their dreams and eventually someone moves out and they all share some tears when they say goodbye. But then they’re replaced with someone new, the house dynamic changes, and the whole cycle starts again.
I have better things to watch, I thought, and so I let the show sit there, perpetually recommended by the algorithm, for more than two years.
But finally, earlier this year, as I wandered the parched desert that was my shockingly-empty DVR, trying to find something to watch other than the entire season of Legion I let stack up (it’s pretty, but it’s also become a show that I enjoy more through other people’s eyes), I gave in and put on the first episode of Terrace House.
Just one, I thought.
I was done with the 46-episode season within a week.
It was so addicting! The quiet, ordinary problems! The upbeat, earworm of a theme song! The painfully awkward attempts at dating someone you barely know who you also live with! THE MEAT INCIDENT!
Since then (and also since I caught up on the subsequent seasons of Terrace House, even the Hawaii season which didn’t feel quite right and probably has something to do with the fact that the Hawaii season had a fair number of Asian-Americans who spoke Japanese but were culturally American, which feels like it led to culture clashes that tended to manifest on camera as fights) I’ve been trying to figure out just what it was about Terrace House that made it instantly comfortable to me, something that I was so excited to watch.
The men and women who go on the show generally seem nice, and tend to try to get along — even when they’re trying to date the same person, which definitely isn’t awkward at all. And as much as the dreaded “are they likable?” question screeches like nails on a chalkboard every time I hear it in reference to a show…
…there is value (SOMETIMES) in spending time with characters who are generally pleasant to be around, and there’s a mostly pleasant vibe to the people who inhabit the house that made it compelling to return to. And “likeable” characters, after all, is a big reason why I’ve seen Parks & Recreation probably 500 times.
“Real”, not “Reality”
Another thing that immediately drew me into Terrace House is that it’s filmed in a way that attempts to maintain a certain distance from the proceedings, providing a feel that’s somewhat closer to documentary realism than reality television.
That doesn’t erase the knowledge, of course, that Terrace House is a reality show, and obviously there are producers pushing buttons and helping steer the ship (for example, in the Terrace House world, finding a part-time job in a brand new city with no experience seems to be the easiest thing in the world). But both in the house and when they’re out on the town, the camerawork is as static as possible, and feels more observational than the intrusive, in-your-face handheld camerawork of so many other reality shows (including many other lesser Japanese shows). By (mostly) sticking to this visual style, Terrace House manages to convey realism by consciously staying away from the tropes of reality television whenever possible.
And then there’s the panel.
The panel is where the show really gets going — along with the six people living in the house at any given time, the show also cuts back to their panel of actors and comedians, who jump in a few times an episode to offer their thoughts about what’s going on in the show.
For those of you who didn’t grow up watching Japanese television, the panel is a staple of a lot of unscripted programming - part stand-in for the audience, part friends you’re watching (and snarking) the show with, the panel fills in the gaps, provides insight into what might be happening in the minds of the people we’re watching, and of course, making fun of each other for their (and our) enjoyment.
The Terrace House panel in particular is well-constructed, as each member falls easily into their specific roles - there’s the snarky one, the innocent one, the more mature one, and so on. And the roles are so well defined, the panelists here become, at times, more important than the slow, meandering inaction of the show - like Herman’s Head (or Inside Out, for a less dated reference), much of the fun comes from the bickering voices, not the mundane everyday life.
Despite all of these elements, none of them fully explain the draw of Terrace House for me.
Ultimately, it’s the rare show that manages to find a way to transcend its roots — the people on the show are certainly very Japanese, but the presentation is cleaner and less obtrusive than a traditional Japanese reality show (Terrace House will never attack your eyeballs with garish, neon, manga-style lettering the way other Japanese reality shows will). The format is familiar to an American viewer — it’s certainly reminiscent of The Real World or Big Brother, but the pace and tone is decidedly Japanese. Somehow, the show manages to walk the line between both cultures, between Japanese and American…
Oh. You know what, I get it now! Thanks everyone, this has been helpful. And go catch up! The next batch of episodes is out on July 31st!