Two years ago, Netflix revived Terrace House, a Japanese reality series that follows six young people who don’t know each other but live together. They also revived The Real World. That seems to be the consensus from its many fans, many of whom wrote to me with their deep love of this binge-able series.
Having watched parts of both Netflix seasons, I’ve found them to be wonderful reminders of early reality TV—and also damning commentary of our role as viewers in reality television today.
The first Netflix season, Terrace House: Boys & Girls in the City, had 46 episodes and 17 cast members, though there are usually only six people in the house at a time. People leave. Others join. It’s refreshing that this is without pretense or any kind of artificial construct.
The cast members also have lives outside of the house and—hold your breath—sometimes even jobs. Not ones set up by the producers. Actual places they go to work. To do things they’re good at besides being on television.
There is an underlying conceit, though, and that is romance.
While Terrace House is decidedly not The Bachelor, the cast members are single, straight men and women, and somewhat focused on relationships, usually with each other—though in a far gentler way than, say, The Challenge. There is no immediate drunken making out; there is slow, deliberate courtship.
Slow and deliberate describes the series, too, which begins each season with the cast members arriving slowly, one by one, and sitting down and talking to each other. There’s no crazy tear through the house to see the luxury they’re living in, nor immediate drinking.
It’s not dry, though: There is some alcohol and laughter; there are consequence for actions; and, eventually and usually, conflict between Terrace House’s residents arises. Yet any conflict burns more like a tea light than the raging forest fire that American reality television usually delivers.
What Terrace House’s commentators actually reveal
Netflix’s second season, Terrace House: Aloha State, debuts its fourth part today—the final 12 of 36 episodes. (The series is a co-production with Fuji Television, and part four just concluded airing on Fuji yesterday.) The series left Japan for the first time and is set in Honolulu, where some of the cast live.
Like the first Netflix season, it is quiet, almost hypnotically so. There’s a theme song and some music, but there are long stretches of silence, and not much in the editing or production that works overtime to prompt an emotional reaction in viewers.
There are no interviews nor confessionals, so unless a cast member talks to another person, we don’t know what they’re thinking or why they’re doing what they’re doing. It’s a delightful reprieve from the over-explaining that drowns so much reality TV.
But: there is another element, and it is a panel of people in a studio who comment on the show. The show is interrupted at the beginning, middle, and end by spirited, sometimes rambunctious commentary on what we’ve just watched.
It’s less The People’s Couch and more like Twitter, with people talking shit about the people they’re watching on TV. (I say that with absolutely no illusions that I’ve spend many years doing a version of that.) “I want to figure out now who is going to be my target for the next 18 episodes,” Ryota Yamasato says in the first episode of Boys & Girls in the City.
The contrast between the quiet, demure conversation in the house and this kind of brutal commentary from the panelists is stark, and the mid-episode interruptions are jarring.
Whether the commentary is simply a version of the celebrity panels common on Japanese shows, a reality TV version of a Let’s Play video, or Twitter’s id writ large, it’s unpleasant and has yet to grow on me.
I have not watched every single episode of Terrace House yet, and perhaps I haven’t watched enough to get to know the panelists. So I set out to see what others thought of the panelists, and found that for some, they’re actually the best part of the show:
- Vulture’s Samantha Rollins calls it “the feature with the biggest payoff: The hosts have great chemistry, and their often genuinely insightful commentary gets looser and increasingly innuendo-filled as the season progresses.”
- BuzzFeed’s Mia Nakaji Monnier argues that while the panelists are “raunchy, cynical, invasive, and yet also friendly. More importantly, they help keep this international show from becoming easy fuel for generalizing about or misunderstanding Japan.”
I appreciate that possibility, but I just haven’t seen enough genuine insight to make those three interruptions per episode worth it.
In all the ways Terrace House succeeds, those segments undermine it for me, reminding me of a significant shift in the way I watch reality television.
The Real World was born at the same time as the early Internet, pre-social media, pre-blogs, pre-instantaneous commentary. Back then, in the dark ages of the 1990s, I actually just watched, and often formed connections with those on screen—instead of using those people as targets, and then forming connections with others over our shared targeting of reality show cast members.
Watching the Terrace House panel constantly barge in and recap, swoon over, or shred what we’ve just seen leaves me wondering how much reality television is being ruined by the need to publicly comment on—and tear down—the people who have decided to live part of their lives in front of cameras.
What have we done? What am I doing?
Terrace House gives us a satisfying and pleasant window into young people’s lives, but its commentators are one hell of a mirror for ours.