Reality shows today tend to be loud, drunken displays of rudeness set in the context of some kind of ruthless competition.
Think of early seasons of Real World on MTV, with wild cards like Puck in San Francisco, or Flavor of Love with Flavor Flav on VH1, shows in which each season somehow had bigger personalities than the last.
American reality TV audiences get intense displays of aggression across the spectrum, but people aren’t always looking for high-pressure TV situations. Stress levels, in fact, were on the increase throughout 2016 and 2017 due largely to the political climate and the election, and a lot of people turned to television simply to relax.
However, the tone of reality shows outside the U.S. tends to be calmer and (surprisingly) more based in reality. So instead of amping up stress levels before bed with certain shows, some viewers have tried visually beautiful, mentally relaxing programs that happen to come from foreign shores.
First came The Great British Bake Off (or Great British Baking Show to some). With baking history and peaceful landscapes filled with bleating sheep, viewers were treated to kind-hearted contestants who weren’t out to trip up their competition at all.
Now, there’s Terrace House, the world’s answer to the people-live-in-a-house-and-we-creepily-observe-them genre of reality TV.
Netflix is currently airing new episodes, which are released eight at a time after their original Japanese airing, of its second season of the show. Set in Hawaii, the new season has brighter colors than before and a potential to reach a bigger audience each week now that people have had time to watch the original season and can keep up with the current one.
The streaming service, in partnership with Fuji Entertainment, recently bought the show that started in Japan as a TV phenomenon in its own right, and new viewers are now experiencing its captivating yet gentle quality.
The premise is familiar: Six young strangers live in a house—the first one’s located in Tokyo—and interact as relationships form. That’s where comparisons to American reality TV basically end. Terrace House is different from other reality shows in almost every way.
The only things provided to the houseguests are the house itself and snazzy Toyota cars. Toyota was an official sponsor for the original series run in Japan between 2012 and 2014. For a subsequent feature film in Japan and Netflix seasons, the auto brand was not involved in any official capacity despite its cars being prominently used and displayed.
“Initially, we didn’t know the show would become such a big hit,” Toyota said in an email to Adweek. “In fact, initial ratings were not so great. But through continuous improvements and minor tweaks, the show has now become a global sensation. We are proud to have been a part of that success.”
Unlike its Western counterparts, Terrace House is not a competition show, nor are producers heavily involved in the overall product, at least from what the audience can tell. With the absence of solo shots of participants speaking to the camera, the show retains the original intention of reality TV as pure observation of everyday people.
In Japan, the show airs each week. Its first Netflix season, “Boys & Girls In The City,” was originally supposed to be 18 episodes but due to its popularity was extended to 46 to keep up with demand. The participants even watch episodes of the show and reference them to one another.
The housemates live together, but they’re not sequestered. There are no added pressures or mind games from being removed from the outside world; the housemates are free to go to school or work as they please.
Throughout the show, the housemates are also free to choose to stop living in the house when they feel they’re ready to do so. Often, this is because they achieved a major life goal and feel it’s unnecessary to continue living in Terrace House. When this happens, they get replaced with a different young person.
Another unique quality of the show is its chat panel. Many shows have an after-show element, but Terrace House brings that directly into the program. A panel of TV personalities, comedians and one teenager—who podcast hosts Rachel and Griffin McElroy have described as a “boy prince” (and now that’s how everyone should refer to him)—who break into the middle of each episode to provide commentary and comic relief.
Here’s the thing, though: All of that sounds boring and bland when compared to the flash! bang! of American reality TV. And that’s the beauty of it.
The curiosity of viewers who want a peek at a new, or distantly familiar, country have driven people to the show. The looks at Japanese architecture, food and customs provide a break and a respite from the nonstop screaming and cutthroat competition that American viewers are used to. (In the first season, only two major incidents happen in the house, and both of the conflicts are solved by speaking calmly with one another. It’s perfect and wildly different from the fistfights (or knife incidents) (or current blackface scandal) reality TV viewers might be used to seeing.)
The show doesn’t need bells and whistles to attract an audience. We’re simply invested in the housemates and how they go about their lives. There’s no extra drama required because life itself is plenty.