I'm not a reality television head. I did not watch Laguna Beach, I did not watch The Hills, I missed the majority of The Real World (though I did read Pedro and Me). I did, however, live with a roommate for a time who was extra generous with her cable, and during that period I got to experience The Jersey Shore. I've come to learn this was something of the pinnacle of MTV's well-honed reality television format. Put an equal number of shameless and generally unemployable men and women in an extravagant house together with an unlimited booze budget and a hot tub, and watch them ruin the possibility of ever living normal lives again, one episode at a time.
Jersey Shore ran for an improbable six seasons, finally laying its bronzed head to rest in 2014. Two years earlier, a Japanese television network aired a show called Terrace House. Terrace House also lumps six strangers in an extravagant house (though more Architectural Digest than Playboy Mansion), provides them with an unlimited alcohol budget, and brings a television audience along for the ride. That's where the similarities end. If Jersey Shore was a hellish, craven sinkhole, Terrace House is a tranquil waterfall.
This year, Netflix teamed up to co-produce a season of Terrace House, one that's currently available for streaming worldwide. It's 19 episodes long, and I'm not ashamed to admit I watched every single one in the span of two weekends. Six strangers live in a house together, but they elide rather than collide. Tensions are resolved with thoughtful, restrained one-on-one conversations, courtships are measured and even-handed (and take fucking forever, honestly), and drinking is a minor activity, indulged intermittently. The show's color palette is as soothing as the gliding cadence of its action; the blue in the pool (which the residents use exactly once) bounces off gleaming minimalist surfaces. Extended sequences focus on the painstaking detail of prepared group meals. Everyone says hello, everyone says goodbye, there's a lot of bowing and a lot of stunted, awkward dates.
The show's inherent quiet is punctuated by brief intermittent commentaries from a panel of Japanese comedians and personalities, who sit sprawled around a comfy living room sitting, making observations and providing insight. While these frequently border on teasing or cruel, they're often surprisingly incisive, cutting someone's actions onscreen to the quick of their true motives. They answer the question the viewer might otherwise ask themselves, and which you're probably asking yourself right now—why does anyone watch this fucking show?
There's been a natural blowback against the wave of 'roided out reality television; these days, we prefer our villains at least feigning restraint, with immaculate dye jobs, sniping at each other from their adjacent, manicured lawns in Beverly Hills. But the rise of more mundane reality shows, Pawn Stars, for example, reveals a market for the intricacies of the human experience. Terrace House takes this conceit, that of toned-down reality tv, three steps further. There are minor human dramas on offer, but they're never played up for effect, nor are they dissected in confessionals or scripted personal conversations. The comedians will spend as long as ten minutes analyzing a simple gesture (i.e.: hand-holding), and in 19 episodes the most savage moment was when a quiet, unambitious model named Minori spelled out "Coward" in ketchup on the omu-rice she had made for her boyfriend's dinner. Everyone in Terrace House has lives they maintain outside of the home, though we rarely see them. The participants are med school undergrads, hair stylists, tap dance instructors, and they come and go as they please, according to the rhythms and vagaries of real life.
When someone does leave Terrace House they're sent off with a modest farewell, perhaps a tear-filled goodbye, before promptly being replaced by another member of their gender (if you're looking for social progressiveness, look elsewhere). It's sad to see them go, but never really that bad, because you realize, you never knew them anyway.