RECOMMENDED: Netflix’s Terrace House
Terrace House is the perfect reality show. It’s chilled out, low stakes TV from Japan (and Netflix), easy to watch, easy to enjoy, and almost unbelievably addictive.
If you’ve not been watching it, the holidays are the perfect time to do so.
The concept of Terrace House is simple: six strangers —three guys and three girls — move into a gorgeous house together. And unlike in a lot of Western reality shows, that’s it. The show puts no restrictions on them. They live in this house, and otherwise continue with their lives. They go to work, keep in touch with all their friends and family, and go on unfilmed trips for their careers or family events or just for vacation. They even watch Terrace House themselves when it airs in Japan. They’re just living their lives as normal, except they have a super fancy house and cameras record them a few days a week.
In the latest incarnation, Opening New Doors, the house is in the rural area of Karuizawa, about two hours away from Tokyo. Karuizawa is a character in itself, an absolutely beautiful region of forests and snow-covered mountains, with plenty of cute little cafes and stylish restaurants. It’s a breathtaking place, and watching the show will make you desperately want to visit. When the show starts, the six initial members are a mixture of Karuizawa natives, people working in Tokyo, and those from farther afield. Ami is a 21 year old university student who comes off as somewhere between no-nonsense and dismissive. The shy 25 year old Tsubasa works as a personal trainer and is training to become a professional hockey player. 31 year old Taka is a professional snowboarder, while 19 year old Yuudai claims to want to be a chef, despite never actually doing any cooking. The group is rounded off with Shion, a model, and Mizuki, a freelancer who writes about beauty and translates between Korean and Japanese.
But the cast of Terrace House never stays the same for long. Whenever a member feels like they’ve reached an end point in the house, they can choose to “graduate,” and a new person comes in to replace them. After the show’s first couple of months, new people regularly join the group, shifting the dynamic and keeping things fresh.
During a member’s time on the show, we follow their pursuit of their professional goals, their relationships with the other housemates, and, of course, any romance that develops. We follow the aspiring hockey player as she trains and works through the season, preparing for her big competition and dealing with her worries about wanting to stay with a team that she far outclasses in terms of skill. The pro snowboarder records promo videos, enters competitions, tries to launch his own winter wear, and works at a soba restaurant in his downtime to support his growing career.
Almost every member of Terrace House is single, and they go on dates with one another, and with people outside the house. We see them get to know each other, see crushes bloom or burn out, couples getting together and couples having the most awkward dates in the history of mankind. But even this dating stuff is so… chill. Two people go jogging together. Another two go to some hot spring foot baths. We see a date to a noodle factory (yes, really), or to a shrine to pray for victory in an upcoming hockey match.
Of course, there is drama. But it’s all very human. It’s the stresses of strangers becoming friends who live together, and people getting to know one another and possibly trying to find love. One season had a huge drama over some illicitly eaten meat — it had been a gift, you see, from one of this hairdresser’s clients, and he was incredibly hurt that the others ate it without asking him. Another guy is really lazy and never does the dishes, but he’s young, so the older ones try to encourage him, with results that are mixed at best. This isn’t a show where people have huge melodramatic fights for the camera. We watch on to see how Shion and Tsubasa’s next date will go, or what Yui is going to say to Mayu about how she’s been acting.
And because it’s low stakes, they become high stakes. A kiss is incredibly dramatic. A secret kiss is the height of house gossip. The tension, when it arises, is in our personal investment, and in getting to know people over the episodes. We form first impressions, and then we see people develop and reveal different sides to themselves. We’re on a gentle journey with them, and it is surprisingly addictive.
We’re joined in this journey by a panel of Japanese comedians, who appear a few times an episode, sitting cozily on sofas, to comment on what’s been going on. They, like us, have been watching the episode, and now we get to see their reactions. Tokui and You form a double act, playing the uncle and aunt roles, and often reenacting scenes or dramatically acting out what they dream might happen next. Yama-chan is the harsh cynic, and you know someone is nice when even he can’t be jokingly judgemental of them. Meanwhile, Tori-chan always tries to find the most sympathetic angle, and if she gets mad or speaks harshly, you know the person she’s talking about has seriously messed up.
It’s comfy and cosy and low-key, not melodramatic or overly mean. And it’s also very Japanese, which is a bonus for foreign viewers wanting to see a different culture from that culture’s own perspective. We see the members celebrating New Year, making plans for Golden Week, having a party with a homemade somen noodle slide or just chilling in the Japanese-style bath together. Occasionally, the show’s cultural attitudes can seem old-fashioned and frustrating. The series has been running for years, and it only just got its first non-straight member — a VERY big deal in terms of progressiveness in Japan, and very un-progressive from a Western perspective. Members judge others for kissing when they’re not even officially dating, and people holding hands on a date is a big deal.
Sometimes you’ll think the people on the show are lovely, and sometimes you’ll think they’re jerks. They definitely make mistakes and hurt one another, and sometimes you realize someone who seemed great is actually fake or manipulative or just not who you thought they were. But all of the contestants are human, and we see that humanity and vulnerability. Drama and stakes are low, and yet they feel incredibly compelling. It’s a show about people, their good and bad sides, trying to understand them (even though the lens of an editor) and seeing how they interact and grow. It’s cosy, and addictive, and hilarious, in that way that people can naturally be.
And if you need a break from stressful reality for a while, I can’t think of a better recommendation than this. Check it out on Netflix — the current season is Opening New Doors.