Two decades or so into its barely conscious reign over the zeitgeist, what is the legacy of reality TV?
Hoo boy. Where to begin?
It’s taught us to fight in public. It’s taught us to use speakerphone at dinner. It’s taught us to aspire to and behave like brands. It’s instilled within us a kind of gamified Darwinism in which “survival of the fittest” is crudely transposed into “not here to make friends.” It’s taught us phrases like “hot mess,” “voted off,” and “thrown under the bus.” It’s simultaneously taught us an entirely new system of audio cues (the way a bowed cymbal wordlessly mourns a fallen souffle, or a brushed one reveals a fabulous makeover), lizard-brain reflexes, and narrative expectations. And did I say “fight in public” already? I did. Lots of that.
But more generally, and perhaps more than anything else, reality TV has taught us to understand our personalities (or lack thereof) as commodities. It’s irrevocably shifted the American understanding of personality from passive state to active performance. What may seem like an insignificant shift — “being yourself” into “doing you” — is actually culturally kind of tectonic.
And it may be why I’ve fallen so quickly in love with “Terrace House.”
“Terrace House” is a franchise of Japanese reality shows, comprising multiple programs and hundreds of episodes, that on the surface appear to traffic in many of the tried-and-(un)true tropes of American reality TV: A well-designed house is populated with strangers, cameras roll, and “life” “happens.”
It’s been around since 2012, and first partnered with Netflix for distribution in 2015, but the show only recently started accumulating an obsessive fan base in the United States. And it’s easy to see why.
Actually, I take that back. It actually took me a few episodes.
On American series, the inevitable tensions fomented/fermented by strangers living together are vented off by things like house competitions, eviction ceremonies, therapeutic soliloquy sessions, the ever-dangling carrot of fame, and other assorted mechanisms that reward disruption, incentivize charisma, and intensify competition by framing every achievement as the natural end to thinning every pack possible down to you.
But there’s none of that on “Terrace House.” Watch the premiere of the most recent season, “Terrace House: Opening New Doors,” and you’ll meet a snowboarder, an aspiring chef, a college student, a model, a digital content editor, and an ice hockey player sharing meals, watching television, discussing their grocery list, going back and forth to their respective classes and jobs and outside-world friends, and (now and then) splitting off to their respective bedrooms to politely compare notes.
The idea, one is left to assume, is that love might bloom between the housemates — but no one ever says as much. And there are no challenges, races, battles, twists, teams, traps, or setups to stoke chemistry; just the long yawn of time, and the invisible hand of production introducing new fish into the tank while gently lifting other ones out.
As a viewer, your role is to sit back and view. It’s incredibly freeing.
The hottest action in the first few hours I spent in front of “Terrace House” involved watching young Yuudai make soup for his housemates from the dinner leftovers.
It doesn’t sound like much — and to hear his housemates talk about the soup later, it wasn’t — but unlike Yuudai’s well-intentioned soup, its consequences have real depth: Was it too light because he dropped out of culinary school? Should he have stayed in school instead of learning to make bad soup on the job? Does he, too, lack depth? And does his inability to make good soup have anything to do with the two pandas he sleeps with? Is all of this just his way of trying to be taken care of?
To help lead you down these dark psychological alleys, “Terrace House” employs its most innovative narrative feature: a second cast.
Each episode is broken up (and thoroughly chewed) by a crew of remote watchers in some distant living room. A chatty, convivial mix of Japanese media personalities, they provide ongoing commentary on the behavior, motivations, attitudes, and defects of the houseguests, and for Western audiences, fill the function of a chorus, carefully reviewing and interpreting the action.
As such, the residents of “Terrace House” seem to dwell happily in a kind of uncertainty that American audiences will find wholly unfamiliar in a reality show. There are no confessionals to clear things up — though we do get to observe them in their comfort zones outside of the house, talking about their experience within it. And there are no lurid reunions — though the houseguests do get to watch their own episodes with a few weeks’ delay (which itself creates a kind of climate of consequences that regulates the temperature of the house).
And while “Terrace House” is far removed from reality, it does leave plenty of room for it to flourish. Compared to the empty calories offered by another regional coven of “Real Housewives,” “Terrace House” feels like a contemplative retreat — an exercise in watching, listening, and learning.
The result is a show where the only real action is interpretation. Yes, it’s crafted and staged — but in the way a garden might be, with elements added and subtracted to create a kind of symbiosis — and enough quiet to let the big questions naturally raise themselves: How does the presence of one life influence another? What does it mean to know someone? How many versions of ourselves do we operate? Why didn’t he just add more seasoning?