A typical episode of Terrace House opens with three men and three women perched on couches or sitting cross-legged on the floor, all around a low-slung wooden coffee table in a studio set of a living room. These aren’t the “stars” of the Japanese reality show turned Netflix streaming hit, but the six quick-witted commentators play a crucial role in the series: as a proxy for you, the viewer at home. The show’s panel is a thoroughly Japanese concept for what is a thoroughly Japanese production.
First, a primer on Terrace House, which has become a cult favorite: The series, a longstanding reality TV franchise from Japan with 70 episodes available on Netflix (and 98[!] episodes that have yet to start streaming), is a less fraught, more innocent version of Real World crossed with Big Brother. It focuses on the everyday, mundane interactions of three men and three women — the actual cast members, not the commentators — who live together (first in Tokyo, with later seasons in Honolulu) in a beautifully decorated house of cool, clean lines.
The cast members keep their own jobs. They go on work trips to China and South Korea; they hang out with their family and friends. They go on dates to cities outside of Tokyo, like Chichibu and Kamakura. (These rendezvous make for good vacation-planning TV.) Crucially, they are also allowed to depart the show for good whenever they please (though it usually tends be after a failed romantic endeavor). Terrace House provides a sneak peek into the lives of Japanese 20-somethings who are living in one of the most vibrant cities in the world. But like Justin McElroy of Polygon argues, don’t write it off as just cultural tourism, because it’s much more than that.
Terrace House is not a particularly progressive show for the 2010s, as it consistently sticks to a 3–3 gender ratio in both the commentariat and the cast, assumes all the members are straight, and maintains some outdated patriarchal stereotypes. Even the commentators occasionally make unsavory, wince-worthy comments. On top of that, the show has been described as “extremely, hypnotically boring.” Yet, within the past year, more and more Americans have been raving about this “inexplicably engrossing” TV show.
“Boring” isn’t a great TV buzzword, but as a descriptor for Terrace House it isn’t necessarily bad. Although it is lighter than American reality shows like this season’s Bachelorette, it still has elements of tension, conflict, and hope for resolution. There are no physical challenges or group dates, but there is still room for the show to “plumb deeper, messier emotional depths.” It’s fulfilling to watching conflicts slowly build up — like the not-major-but-definitely-present tension between a newly arrived member and a member who’s been there since the first day — and finally get resolved.
At times, watching Terrace House can feel like you’re observing real life through a blurry lenses, and it’s not just due to the soft filter used by editors. Things seem so … calm. Terrace House doesn’t satisfy that bloodthirsty, “unscripted”-but-probably-scripted drama that you get from The Bachelorette, Real World, and the like. The common tropes of reality TV as we know it are noticeably absent. While cast members do have sex and sometimes drink heavily, the producers purposefully don’t show debauchery. Instead, Terrace House focuses on what happens next, like looking at how a relationship changes — or doesn’t change — after becoming official or how a hungover cast member tries so endearingly hard to make it through a date at an amusement park. (He ends up throwing up five times.) Terrace House doesn’t even have the seemingly requisite confessional interviews, where cast members can spill the beans or hint at stewing drama. What you see is what you get, and you learn to pick up on the nuances, glances, attitudes, and tones within each interaction.
Of course, outside opinions can help break some of the doldrums, and that brings us back to Terrace House’s panel of commentators — a familiar sight for those who watch East Asian variety/reality shows but a relatively new concept for most American viewers. The Terrace House commentators cringe at the awkward rejections and mean-spirited jabs, coo at the cute moments, and express shock at the sad-but-inevitable departures. Though it may seem odd to have a group of people analyzing and critiquing the cast’s interactions as they happen — like a series of YouTube reaction videos running intermittently within the program — the commentators become the familiar regulars who bring their individual wit and charm to every session.
In a show where the cast list and location is fluid, it’s helpful to have a constant set of faces to come back to. All the commentators — save for 20-year-old Kentaro, who was swapped in for an even younger Ayumu Mochizuki at the start of Part 2 of the first season — have been around since the show’s beginning. Ehara Yukiko, who also goes by You, kicks off each episode by introducing the premise of the show, always ending with: “There is no script at all.” Then, Reina Triendl, the bashful one, leads the recaps by reading off key points from her iPad. There’s a good balance of talkers and listeners: Azusa Babazono is the quietest of the bunch and doesn’t say much, while Ryota Yamasato is the outspoken one; for example, he blurts out that he hopes it will turn out disastrous when a cast member decides to go on a date with all three of girls. Yoshimi Tokui sometimes chimes in with revelations from his own romantic experiences. The young actor, Kentaro, is quiet like Babazono and is also a good foil to whom Yamasato can say things like, “Kentaro, you haven’t developed a discerning eye for women yet. I’ll teach you today.”
The commentator sessions provide more than just a recap and analysis of the show; they also act as a “double-layered view of Japan,” BuzzFeed contributor Mia Nakaji Monnier writes, adding that the commentary offers “a deeper look into Japanese culture than a show with a single-layer format could.” The commentators “keep this international show from becoming easy fuel for generalizing about or misunderstanding Japan,” she writes, which is essential for a show that is as Japanese as Terrace House is.
Some fans are confused or even annoyed by this commentator format, but it’s a staple of East Asian variety (or reality-that-edges-on-variety) programming. Shows like the Japanese Gaki no Tsukai — which served as inspiration for MTV’s Silent Library — and the South Korean Happy Together lean on a panel of personalities to mold and set the tone for the broadcast. Their goal is not only to add humor, but also to provide a level of consistency to anchor the show. For a series as staid as Terrace House, the hosts offer a dose of wit to keep the proceedings lively.
“What an amazing guy,” You says at the start of Episode 11 of the first season of Terrace House: Boys & Girls in the City. The group has just watched a playback of a reconciliation date from Episode 9 between a cast member and her ex-boyfriend. “Just like these gentlemen.” She gestures toward Tokui and Yamasato, who are both wearing sweaters with Fair Isle-like patterns.
In the previous episode, after the commentators gush over the sweet ex-boyfriend and his Fair Isle sweater, You jokingly calls out Tokui and Yamasato for previously assuming the ex was just “trying to do her one more time” after seeing her on TV post-breakup. In between laughs, Tokui and Yamasato bow deeply and then look into the camera to apologize to the cast member, a medical student. “When I’m hurt, I’d like for you to treat my injury,” Yamasato says.
So, in Episode 10, Tokui and Yamasato, inspired by the good-natured ex-boyfriend, wear knit sweaters that mimic the trademark Fair Isle design around the collar. “We wanted to at least give the impression of a good guy,” Yamasato says. He calls his own words spicy, but a better descriptor for them is honest. His colleague You might call him out from time to time for being being too crude or inconsiderate, but she never scolds in a condescending way — more like a friend, or a sister. By the time you’re five episodes deep into Terrace House, they’ll start feeling like family to you, too.