GUILTY PLEASURE: TERRACE HOUSE

We’ve stumbled upon a new obsession the past few months. This in addition to those our other obsessions regular readers may be familiar with: Surfing and espresso. What is this new vice? It’s a Japanese reality television show called Terrace House.

You may have heard of Terrace House. If you have Netflix you may have seen it as a “tile” in the queue on your Netflix dashboard. The show is akin to American reality shows like Big Brother and MTV’s Real World. On the surface, it more closely resembles the latter, but with a distinctive Japanese cultural twist.

The premise of the show is as follows. Six total strangers, mostly twenty- and thirty-something Japanese, are selected to live in a beautiful house set up in a beautiful or fashionable locale. The six housemates go about their usual daily lives — work, school, play — and interact with each other at the house as they cross paths in their routines or as house members go on outings together. Often the main stage of interaction is a six-person dining table next to an open kitchen. There is, as the show reminds us in its upbeat intro, “no script at all” (or so they say). Cameras are set up everywhere in the house and follow the members around to capture the action and then edit footage into some kind of distilled weekly narrative.

Each episode covers a week of life at the house. From time to time, the shows cuts aways from the action in the house to a studio panel of Japanese celebrities and comedians who then comment and analyze what we’ve just watched. Sometimes this panel is more interesting than the events transpiring in the house itself.

One observation often heard about the show is that “nothing happens.” But that’s not true. Rather, compared to many American or Westen reality T.V. shows with their elaborately staged set-ups, hyberbolic personalities, and moments of emotional outbursts or enraged “acting out” (plus the occasional table-flip moments a la Real Housewives), it only seems like not much is happening. This is a byproduct both of the cultural context but also the the way the show is set-up. As a result, small things, minor faux pas or actions that deviate slightly from the expected social norms are emphasized and magnified out of what might seem reasonable proportion. A house member leaves their towels on the bathroom floor and it becomes the cause of much tensions and consternation that takes on a life of its own.

So how did this show wind up on Amercian T.V.?

When Netflix began to expand in the Japanese market in the 2010s, it scooped up a lot of Japanese T.V. programs or partnered with producers (in this case Fuji Television) to create original Japanese shows to offer on the company’s growing streaming service.

Via Netflix’s enormous global platform, shows like Terrace House suddenly found new, massive international audiences. Terrace House (or “Tera-Ha” how its sometimes called in Japan) eventually reached viewers in some 190 countries including the U.S.

The show has completed five seasons, three of which are available in the U.S. The word “season,” however, is a bit inaccurate. It’s better to think of the show in terms of locales and years rather than seasons in the traditional T.V. sense. The first two “seasons” each lasted a year and were set in a popular beach town south of Tokyo called Shonan, and these aired in Japan prior to Netflix’s picking  up the series. It was a massive phenomenon and culminated in a feature film with members of the house continuing their journey to a point of logical closure. (Spoiler: The girl gets the guy, and so on.)

Subsequent seasons include Terrace House “Boys and Girls in the City” set in Tokyo, followed by “Aloha State,” where the locale is for the first time outside Japan, in a suburb of Honolulu, Hawaii. The show returned to Japan for “Opening New Doors,” which is set in the small, mountainous countryside town of Karuizawa about two hours by train from Tokyo.

A new season set in Tokyo debuted last week and will likely be available in the U.S. this summer. We can’t wait. Because addiction.