In Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, the protagonist, Aomame, a martial arts instructor, is forced to live in a safe house. Tamaru, her bodyguard, suggests that she read Proust’s In Search of Lost Time: “This would be a good opportunity to read the whole thing.” “Have you read it?” Aomame asks. “No, I haven’t been in jail, or had to hide out for a long time,” Tamaru says. “Someone once said unless you have those kinds of opportunities, you can’t read the whole of Proust.”
I would give similar advice to the prospective viewer of the Japanese reality television show Terrace House, which has been available to stream in the United States since 2015. The fourth season, “Tokyo 2019–2020,” began recently and will run for the next year. If you’re going to watch it, it helps to be marooned: It’s not just that the seasons sprawl to as many as 49 episodes; it’s also that the show, like great French literature, requires total immersion in order to appreciate its intricacies. I started watching the second season, “Aloha State,” when I was incapacitated with the flu and alone in my apartment for five days straight. By the time I recovered, I had finished all 36 episodes and made headway on the first season, “Boys & Girls in the City.”
A document of domestic relationships that’s the human equivalent of Norwegian “Slow TV,” Terrace House is a perfect artifact of the streaming era. Created in Japan and broadcast with subtitles by Netflix around the world, it is local content gone global, like Australia’s avocado toast or K-Pop music videos. Its format has been echoed in China and South Korea, and its participants made famous by online fandoms that keep tabs on their Instagrams and gossip about them on subreddits. The Terrace House niche goes so deep that it can be hard to remember it’s a niche in the first place. Its unobtrusive formula doesn’t seem designed for such mass appeal. We didn’t know we wanted it until we had it.
“Good evening,” each episode’s introduction runs. “Terrace House is a show about six strangers living together, and we observe how they interact. All that we’ve prepared is a beautiful home and automobiles. There is no script at all.” In other words, the setup is much like old-school American reality shows—Big Brother or The Real World—that highlighted the relatively normal interactions of relatively normal people, who happened to be on television. In Terrace House, three boys and three girls cook dinners, congregate around a dining table, go to their part-time jobs, celebrate birthdays and holidays together, and try to date each other with varying degrees of success. Each season occupies a luxurious new house in a new location—Tokyo, Oahu, and the bucolic resort town Karuizawa—though there are only two bedrooms used in each, one for the boys and one for the girls. Since their ages range from late teens to early thirties, this layout might be awkward, but it generates plenty of dialogue.
What makes Terrace House refreshing is that the conflicts are so minimal and mundane by American television standards. There are no competitions or final roses; no one gets kicked off. Mostly, the residents try to help each other find love, interact with their roommate-crushes, and—a constant refrain—“work hard to achieve their goals,” which might include opening a café, launching a hat brand, or becoming a firefighter. Arman, from season one, barely does anything to become a firefighter, to the disappointment of his housemates. In season three, Tsubasa, who wants to be a star hockey player, sticks with her local team, even though they might be holding her back. The decision is bound to be painful, however she chooses. How many American shows, scripted or not, allow us to feel that kind of gentle disappointment, with the knowledge that the story won’t end, that life will continue off camera the next day?
Many of the housemates’ problems are relatable reflections of global millennial ennui. In a running subplot in the new season, the dilettante Shohei describes how he doesn’t want to choose between working as an actor and being a model or journalist or furniture designer. His housemates, including the freelance illustrator Kaori, push him to commit to a single path, but later on Kaori admits that impostor syndrome is blocking her own ambition. Though spotting cultural quirks and mores is entertaining, human vulnerability is the real appeal.
Housemates leave Terrace House whenever they have achieved their goals: found love (couples usually depart together), finished their album, decided to pursue tap dancing abroad. Then they are replaced by new boys and girls, who shake up the dynamic and provide fresh romantic fodder. By the end of the season, the house has been through several stages and turned over completely at least once; in this way, Terrace House extends infinitely, always the same and always different, a streaming Ship of Theseus.
The show’s other innovation provides a consistent backbone. Once or twice an episode, the camera cuts to a stage-set living room in which a group of six Japanese comedians sit gazing out at an invisible TV screen, mirroring the viewer at home. (See Murakami’s short story “TV People.”) The comedians, famous in their own right, ruthlessly dissect, mock, cheer, and flirt over the housemates, developing recognizable tics and narratives. A panelist named You habitually curls a finger over her lips when saying something hesitant or sly; Reina plays the naïf, easily embarrassed; Yama-chan is the internet’s lascivious avatar, urging on conflict. (Having recently married, he’s more moralizing in the new season.) With the panel, Terrace House watches itself alongside you. It manages to combine the social discourse around streaming television—what you’d tweet about, recap, or make fun of with friends—into the actual show. Though it’s not a blockbuster like Game of Thrones or the Avengers movies, which stir endless public discourse, it manages to feel like one because it talks to you about itself.
The self-consciousness doesn’t stop there. In moments of terrifying genius and postmodern media commentary, the housemates are sometimes pictured within an episode sitting in the living room watching themselves on Terrace House, reflecting on how they’re represented. In season three, a young woman named Yui begins to cry when she sees Yama-chan poke fun at her. When Yama-chan then later watches Yui crying, he apologizes. What do you call a panopticon that works in two directions? (The internet?) Each side is aware of the other, but only able to interact across lapses in time, like Keanu Reeves in The Lake House.
These fractures in the narrative hint at a tension roiling beneath the surface of Terrace House. The show looks placid, but it’s not. The essayist Brian Phillips has documented the differences between the soundtracks for the Japanese and American versions and argues that the conflicts are supposed to be more emotional than Western viewers think. While the Japanese audience hears global megahits from the likes of Taylor Swift, suggesting the heights of drama, the American version is scored to barely noticeable, anesthetizing pop-rock. (This is also true of the new season: The Japanese theme song is by the synth-goth Chvrches, while the international theme is emo mush circa 2011 by Eleventyseven.)
My theory is that because the general mood is so surprisingly calm, any actual conflicts look drastic by contrast, the same way real life is pretty boring until it’s not. The best Terrace House moments are breaks in the thin fabric of civilization, usually when everything falls apart and social hierarchies go out the window. They’re the kinds of moments you would develop inside jokes about with your friends—whether they’re funny or bleak. Minori making Uchi an omelet that has “coward” written on it in ketchup. Uchi having a breakdown and sobbing for a full day when his roommates cook a special steak sent to him by a hairdressing client. Guy the surfer losing his nerve. Taka the snowboarder shaving his mustache. The Shohei-Seina church incident. The Noah-Seina club make-out. Basically every episode with Yuudai.
And yet what truly makes the show for me is still the B-roll shots in which nothing much happens, like Proustian flashbacks of a life I never lived. Someone quietly chops vegetables. Snow begins to fall outside the house, past the porch light. Roommates sit on the couch tapping their phones in silence. Watching Terrace House, you feel like a dog bemused by its reflection in a mirror, marveling at the sheer fact of existence.
With only 12 episodes available in the initial batch, it’s too soon to know how the fourth season will stack up; it’s going to run through the Tokyo Olympics, after all. The producers have a regrettable tendency to scout a lot of actors-slash-models too conscious of how they’ll appear on-screen, which is particularly acute so far. The more famous Terrace House gets, the less mundane its participants can pretend they’re being. Yama-chan even admonishes this season’s hapless musician-bro Kenji for promoting his band too much on-screen.
Season three, set in Karuizawa and certainly the best introduction to the show so far, was warmer and slower than this one. Season four’s setting in Tokyo accelerates every interaction, and there’s more of an emphasis on dating at the expense of everything else. It sometimes resembles a modernized Tale of Genji or a harem anime. One episode’s teeth-gritting, protracted argument between the parkour practitioner Risako and the actress Haruka, incited by shared crushes on Kenji, was more brutal than anything on Succession.
Still, the housemates generally want to work hard together to achieve their goals, and in those interactions there is a gentle hope that civilization is not a lie, even now. When Sartre wrote, “Hell is other people,” what he meant was, “We judge ourselves with the means other people have and have given us for judging ourselves.” We understand our identities as they’re reflected in and by those around us. By that argument, heaven can be other people, too. Such is Terrace House: the realest reality show we’ve got.