In Netflix’s quietly affable reality program Terrace House, the setup is familiar, but the result is different. Six young, attractive strangers — three men and three women — all live under one roof in a swanky apartment. But there's absolutely no drama. All conflict is resolved through mature communication and polite respect for one another. Friendships and relationships form naturally, as if rebutting the reality TV mantra, "I didn't come here to make friends, I came here to win!"
Terrace House swims against the current of its competitors, and yet this little reality show makes for such compelling television. How?
A cornerstone in Netflix's mission to create original content for its global offerings, the show is a continuation of a larger franchise that ran for eight seasons in Japan from 2012 to 2014. This new season, titled Terrace House: Boys & Girls in the City was made specially for Netflix in partnership with Japan's Fuji TV. Part 1 of the first season debuted on Netflix internationally last year, and Part 2 was finally released this week.
Much like The Great British Baking Show, the show is a more gentle variation of the traditional American reality show format which often creates drama by shaming and embarrassing their contestants. Here, genuinely likable people engage in day-to-day interactions so soothing and evenly paced I'd happily have it on in the background if it weren't for the fact that I don't understand Japanese and need my eyes glued to the screen at all times to read the subtitles.
The rotating cast of housemates features a diversity of characters, ranging from a tap dancer to a hat designer. Nobody is forcing them to leave; they know when it's their time to go. Whether it's by realizing there's no one left to pair up with, or simply choosing to go back to school to focus on their studies, no one overstays their welcome. It's a refreshing change from American reality shows where you pray and cry to god for contestants to leave, but then they show up on a spinoff series a month later eating deli meats and threatening to de-limb their colleagues. (Lookin' at you, The Bachelor.)
The show's only constant is a panel of comedians who watch from a comfy living room studio set and react to each episode. The personalities get as emotionally invested in the housemates as I do, and offer up commentary on how each situation (like the perfect moment for a first kiss) should have been handled. In response to one of the show's best moments, they squeal and giggle with delight when a cast member playfully writes out "coward" on her shy love interest's omurice in ketchup.
It would seem Terrace House is largely enjoyable because it's the antithesis of modern reality television, but its richness is a bit more complex. Terrace House's strengths like in the cultural differences — one particular example being that it takes several episodes before any kind of physical contact happens between any romantic parties. They go on dates with one another, the girls even going so far as to do each others' hair to help them prepare. There's an episode titled "Magic Spell Costco," in which they talk about going on a date to everyone's favorite wholesale warehouse, and it's all very sweet and endearing. Reality television is, when at its best, a view into a culture, and how its perceives itself. Perhaps Terrace House and even The Great British Baking Show are successful because they're somewhat like tourism. After visiting the same familiar places, and seeing the same familiar people, these shows are a refreshing look at the rest of the world.
Of course, Terrace House stands on its own merits, too. Never have I seen a reality show that so accurately captures the "reality" part. House members have modest "parties," (they do an obscene amount of cooking on this show), but they also show the mundane; the grocery shopping for the party, the dish-washing afterwards, and late-night laundry sessions. There's more heart-to-hearts and intimate conversations we see taking place next to the washing machine set outside of their posh apartment than the sparkling pool it's placed next to, which we rarely see them use. It feels like an honest portrayal of how modern young Japanese live their lives: chasing ambitions and going on dates that occasionally lead to something more but mostly fizzle, with laundry responsibilities and all.