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Terrace House
A still from “Terrace House”Courtesy of Netflix

Why is everyone obsessed with this Japanese reality show?

Terrace House is the most interesting show where nothing happens

Terrace House may just be the first reality show where nothing really “happens”. It’s been described by the New York Times as “punishingly mundane” and another article in Cosmopolitan reads: “Even though the show is about nothing, I can’t stop watching it, and I think about it all the time.” A Japanese phenomenon that aired from 2012-2014, Terrace House was revived on Netflix earlier this year. It’s a show where six strangers live together in a house during the summer. They agree to be filmed 24/7, but instead of being locked in without a key, made to endure testing challenges, give confessionals to a camera, they just… live. Each either has a day job, or goes to uni. They cook for each other and share laughs late at night over drinks, asking who is currently crushing on whom.

Mostly, though, not a lot happens.

I’ve been recommended this show on multiple occasions. It was discussed on one of my favourite podcasts, Who? Weekly. I gave the first season a test drive while alone in a Los Angeles hotel room, and I was hypnotised. This show was addicting. And I knew I wasn’t alone, but why is everyone suddenly obsessed?

“I guess I was attracted to the show because I grew up with reality shows like The Hills and Laguna Beach, and Terrace House seemed kind of similar, but with the awkwardness and shyness of Japanese culture,” says Natalie, a 25-year-old from Vancouver, Canada. “I think I kept watching because it intrigued me to watch a reality show of how other people in a different culture choose to communicate with one another.”

Natalie came across the show on her Netflix home page. It was recommended to her, she says, because she watched another Japanese show. She’s so far binged all two seasons and is trying to sell the mundanity to all of her friends. “I told my friend it’s a mix of Laguna Beach and The Real World. Except no drunken fights, and passive conversations. It’s a bit mundane but the way they confront each other is so interesting.”

“It’s a bit mundane but the way they confront each other is so interesting” – Natalie, 25

Laura, 27, living in New York, “just stumbled upon it, looking for something to watch in bed.”

“The fascination is easier to pinpoint,” she says of the show’s draw. “It’s partly the cultural differences, especially in terms of gender roles in heterosexual relationships and the somewhat traditional ideas around marriage. And it’s partly the fact the format and editing appears to hark back to a more ‘honest’ or ‘real’ version of reality TV, where the mundane and trite are given as much airtime as moments of tension or unrest.”

From time to time, the series will cut away from the “action” (if bobbing around a pool or doing laundry can be called as much), to a panel of celebrity commentators on a beige couch who offer sundry opinions about what is happening. This is the Gogglebox portion of the show. Sometimes they can be harsh. “His voice is too high,” they say about Tatsuya (aka Uchi) in the first season, before breaking into fits of laughter. Or else, after a faintly noticeable attempt at two character’s flirting, the panel will chime in with: “That was a good vibe there!” Each episode is 20 minutes long, and the best part is when Netflix autoplays the next episode, and it begins with the panel recapping the 20 minutes of literal nothingness that you just watched. “So, a lot happened in the last episode,” one will ironically offer.

“I have a love/hate relationship with (the commentators),” adds Natalie. “At first I felt they were unnecessary as I didn’t know if they were really adding much besides saying who they thought were hot or not. But they grew on me as they gave context as to why certain things are deemed rude or inappropriate due to difference in culture. They make audiences understand both the show’s and Japanese culture’s social mannerisms better.”

And fans can’t get enough. Now, the people of Reddit have begun adding subtitles to the seasons that took place pre-Netflix, much the same as fans did with Norwegian teen hit Skam. Terrace House is quickly becoming a cult phenomenon; fan groups have sprung up to discuss theories and chat about their favourite characters. The show is an expert in leaving its viewers wanting more. There is no promised payoff or blow-up between two of the Terrace House occupants. It’s a far cry from the orchestrated drama of a Real Housewives franchise, and owes just as much to social experiments like dot-com entrepreneur Josh Harris’ underground New York bunker where real people were filmed living together in close quarters. (A documentary from 2009, We Live in Public, tells the story of that failed experiment.) Terrace House, however, is entertainment just as much as experiment – watching people simply live their lives continues to fascinate in ways we never would have anticipated from reality television. What people seem to want from reality TV is reality. With Terrace House, it’s exactly what you get. Nothing more, nothing less – and we’re hooked.