Terrace House is a Japanese reality show that prefaces each of its episodes by telling its viewers that there is no script. Unlike Western reality television with its incredible drama and “shocking” twists and turns, Terrace House opts for a much more grounded atmosphere that lets the stories naturally unfold between its participants. It captures the natural intrigue that happens when strangers meet for the first time and learn to interact with each other, and the whole show makes for a rather comfortable viewing experience. This, coupled with the panel of spectators commentating on the footage, makes watching Terrace House feel like you’re with a group of friends who are ready to provide funny and insightful quips about the people onscreen. It’s hardly a wonder that Terrace House caught on so quickly with viewers outside of Japan: the way the entire show is structured allows for casual enjoyment without most of the ire of Western reality TV’s manufactured drama.
One major fault of Western reality TV is its incessant need to always one-up itself. The shows tack on more and more unbelievable drama and surprises as they go on in order to keep viewers happy and guessing, but is this what audiences really want? Many reality shows run into the issue of being over-the-top to the point of being campy or downright unfair (if it’s a competition-based show). The producers drive themselves into corners by creating divisive rifts in their fanbase and then finding that they can’t please the opposing groups, resulting in a show often disappoints a large number of its fans.
Whereas Western television uses drama as its hook, Terrace House understands that audiences find ordinary people interesting because many of us are ordinary people ourselves. Gossip is popular just for this reason: natural human drama (even if it’s small by television standards) is compelling. We enjoy seeing how we are similar and different from others, and we enjoy watching people come together and form genuine friendships or romances. There’s no pressure for Terrace House to write engaging storylines because narratives naturally arise from human interaction. The participants don’t have to act out a character because who they are is interesting enough. And oftentimes, real human beings with nuanced personalities and flaws coming into conflict with each other are more compelling and relatable than people shouting and dramatically throwing their drinks.
For example, in the most recent season, Terrace House: Opening New Doors, we watch as Yuudai, a young aspiring chef, speaks honestly about working hard to achieve his dream of being independent. But as episodes pass and we see little to no footage of Yuudai actually cooking or studying, the panel of spectators and his fellow housemates realize that he’s kind of a quintessential deadbeat who talks and talk, but fakes the walk. The tension that arises between Yuudai (who’s trying to keep up appearances and deny that he’s slacking) and his housemates (who are trying to help him but seeing no progress) is intriguing and cringe-inducing, but it’s hard to look away. Yuudai certainly reminds me of people from my own life, and seeing his housemates struggle the way I have imparts a certain sense of comfort. It keeps me watching and hoping, perhaps in vain, that Yuudai will actually succeed one day.
And because Terrace House doesn’t completely entrap its participants within the house itself, we can see them do things like working, going to school, talking with their friends from the outside, or going on excursions in locations that display the beauty of Japan. This openness allows for grander and more interesting “storylines” that expand beyond Terrace House like Mizuki starting her own line of lingerie or Tsubasa’s goal to play on Japan’s Olympic women’s hockey team. There is no overarching objective in Terrace House other than watching people live their lives, and sometimes that’s all a show needs to be great entertainment.
If Western reality TV is a ladder infinitely spanning upwards with no end in sight and people dropping off as they grow more and more weary, then Terrace House is a slow and steady train ride through some pleasant scenery with friends. The former provides more thrill but can quickly become tiring while the latter has much more longevity – while I get frustrated and angry at the shenanigans of Western reality shows, I can watch Terrace House for hours on end in relative happiness. And at the end of the day, I would much rather remember the soothing landscape than the dizzying heights.