Terrace House is so real that it can’t be anything but fake. Uther Dean writes about what makes the Japanese Netflix dating reality show so addictive.
Do you know what a parasocial relationship is? Because I promise that you’re in heaps of them.
Parasocial relationships are the ones that occur between you and the people on your screens. That real feeling but totally artificial intimacy you have with people in stories you hold close. You see into their lives and feel you know them, and that they kind of know you.
While YouTube personalities may deal in the biggest bulk of parasocial relationships, it’s reality TV that’s perfected it. Reality TV dismisses the world, to focus you on people and let you think that you know them. It’s a trick, yes. You don’t really know these people and they don’t care about you at all. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing. At its best, the increased empathy reality TV can build through parasocial relationships can be precisely the calming influence that we need in this increasingly frantic world.
All of which is to say that when I say Terrace House is my favourite reality TV show and that it trades solely in parasocial relationships, it’s not meant as a back-handed compliment. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that Terrace House would single-handedly make the case for the existence of reality TV if Masterchef Junior didn’t already exist (there is nothing purer than watching Gordon Ramsay help a crying child salvage a burnt dish, it’s the platonic ideal of television).
Terrace House is a Japanese dating show. Six people – three women and three men – move into a luxurious house in Japan (or, in one case, Hawaii). They sometimes date. Sometimes don’t. And you just kinda watch them. When it debuted in Japan in 2012 as Terrace House: Boys x Girls Next Door, it was a respectable hit. When Netflix came on board in 2015 as a co-producer and international distributor, it took off. It grew in popularity in Japan as well as building a cult audience across the world of people entranced by its hypnotically calm pace and serene tone.
It’s hard to emphasise just how blank a canvas Terrace House is. There are no challenges and there’s no elimination process – people choose to leave when they don’t have anything more to get out of the experience of being there. Some of the residents don’t end up going on any dates at all. They just hang out in their sweet-as house. There are no in-the-moment interviews, meaning our only insight into the residents thinking is through their interactions with each other and their friends. This is a wonderful innovation.
Terrace House is the first real masterpiece of parasocial entertainment. You really begin to feel like you know and care about these people. Even though they’re all aspiring models or entertainers who are only on the show to build a public profile, you feel close to them – not despite the lack of insight into their minds, but because of it.
It makes them just like everyone else in your real life: mysterious ciphers whose inner lives and intentions we can only fathom by puzzling out the few clues they give us person-to-person. You grow closer to them because you have to invent your own story about who they are. You’re not asked to relate or empathise with them, but to care for and look into them. This pays dividends when it comes to the dating aspect of the show.
The dating in Terrace House does have somewhat of a rigid formula to it: they hang out, one of them asks the other an “official” date, they go on several more, and one of them (always the man, *sigh*) asks the other to be their girlfriend. Sometimes couples stay together in the house, sometimes they move out. There’s an implicit final step in this formula which is when you Google them to find out that they’ve inevitably broken up and you find that you’re incredibly upset by this.
You’re upset because you cared about these people. The parasocial artistry of Terrace House erases the blatant artificial structuring of the romance plots. It breaks them down into giddy, heart-swelling moments, like people coyly confessing their attraction to each other, a couple holding hands for the first time, or a stumbling first kiss. This show has found an incredibly powerful drug in its ability to show audiences the low-key awkward delight of the early stages of romance. It’s just really nice to watch people like each other. It’s charming to see someone have a crush on someone else and not know whether they like them back.
There’s a panel of commentators made up of comedians and actors who discuss the action of each episode. The feeling is very much like a bunch of friends gossiping about shared acquaintances and, when not occasionally veering down disappointing paths of mild misogyny, they can be incredibly charming.
It feels like an odd decision to have such an artificial construct, but the early episodes of Terrace House that didn’t have commentators show just how vital an addition they are. Without people snarking and breaking down what’s going on, Terrace House feels dry, claustrophobic and creepy. Having the panel there makes the world of the show seem more open, more welcoming, and more fun. They give you permission to enjoy the innate voyeurism of the show but also let you know you’re not alone in watching.
Terrace House’s greatest achievement is in how low key it is. With little on the line, there are no histrionics and no stakes. All the conflict feels like the real day-to-day conflicts of life: people obliviously hitting on people who just aren’t into it, a slight disagreement or miscommunication ruining a conversation, and people turning up at museums when they’re closed. These are the kinds of drama the show provides. Written down they don’t seem like much, but in the low impact world of Terrace House, they’re massive.
My favourite example is an event that goes down in the show’s history as ‘The Meat Incident’ which occurs on the first Netflix season Terrace House: Boy x Girls in the City.
Uchi, a hairdresser, gets a gift of some wagyu beef from a customer. He saves it for a special occasion. Several days later, his girlfriend, Minori, and several other residents in the house eat Uchi’s “special meat” without asking him. When he finds out, he is devastated, crying and leaving the room.
It’s a moment that has a lot less to do with the actual facts of the “special meat” consumption than it does the constellation of factors around it. Uchi has worked his way up from the bottom, you can tell he feels a lot of pride in his hard work and the rewards it brings. Minori is still a student and doesn’t quite grasp the stakes of working for everything you have. They have only recently started their relationship and there are still clear stumbling blocks between them when it comes to communication.
She visits him in his room where he’s still crying, and they chat about how they don’t really talk anymore. The “meat incident” is not about the meat, it’s about their relationship. It’s amazing. It feels exactly like the problems of real life.
Which, I guess, is a long way of me saying that I like Terrace House because people on it cry as often as I do in real life.
Terrace House can also be as conflicted and contradictory as its residents. The gender politics of Terrace House are a particularly noteworthy point of tension, ranging from not great to actively gross. As much a product of the dating show format, Terrace House is also a product of the differing cultural norms of Japan. It’s entirely understandable why people wouldn’t want to engage with it, especially since it doesn’t seem to be moving with the times or learning as it grows. There’s a particularly unpleasant plot about women’s agency in relationships in the latter half of Terrace House: Opening New Doors, so I’d advise viewers leave when Tsubasa (the best person to ever be on the show IMO) does.
Terrace House’s great success lies in how invisible its construction is. The cameras never move. People never address or acknowledge them. Fumbles are left in conversations and the cast rarely feel like they’re prompted to say anything. It feels incredibly unintrusive and its crowning achievement is how little you think about how it was made.
It feels like the least constructed show in reality TV which, of course, means it’s almost certainly the most constructed. Terrace House’s blank style is incredibly seductive. It’s easy at first to buy into the idea that it’s actually just showing us the truth. The verisimilitude is incredible. But it’s a lie. It’s not that there are seams – Terrace House is as finely machined a product as I have seen on TV – it’s that this level of real must come from an equal level of false, which can feel like a betrayal.
But it isn’t. A reality TV show convincing you of its reality is not a con. It’s a show doing its job. The craft of Terrace House’s verisimilitude is as impressive as its emotional content. Reality TV is as made up as anything else on our screens, so we should only hope that it all be as well made as Terrace House.
You can watch Terrace House: Tokyo 2019-2020 (and many previous seasons of Terrace House) on Netflix right now.
Join The Spinoff Members for as little as $1 to help us hire more journalists and do more investigations. Or get a free Toby Morris-designed tea towel when you contribute $80 or more over a year.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.