Terrace House: How “Unscripted” Is TV’s Most Boring Reality Show?

Unseen Japan

By Krys Suzuki

In case you haven’t been following TV trends in the past year, Netflix has recently been responsible for taking obscure Japanese shows and making them ridiculously popular in the US. Several months back, it was all about KonMarie and her secret shirt-folding ways. More recently, they’ve adapted another Japanese TV show and once again, created huge waves — and a massive cult following to surf them.

Welcome to Terrace House, the “show about nothing.”

For those who might be unfamiliar, Terrace House is a Japanese reality TV show in which six “random” (read: carefully hand-selected by producers) individuals, comprised of three men and three women, are sent to live together in one house, and…

Well, that’s it. There’s no storyline, and no competition. These people are simply allowed to continue living their daily lives as they would any other day, from any other home. They go to work, go to school, pursue their hobbies, meet with friends. We’re basically just watching six different strangers living six different lives in six different ways.

(JP) Link: Terrace House: The Cute and Quiet Japanese Reality TV Show

When Did Boring Become So Fun?

The excitement is said to come from not any specific plot, competition, or other incentive. It comes from watching how these six different individuals develop and interact with each other as they live their lives. We, the audience, take a fly-on-the-wall perspective, and soon enough find ourselves super involved in the lives of these strangers, despite not being involved at all.

The reason many seem so quick to jump on the boring train, and label the show as such is, however, not because it is actually boring (otherwise, why would so many people be watching it?). It’s because, compared to what we are used to seeing on TV, that’s the first word to come to mind when attempting to describe it. However, I find that word to be flat and inaccurate. What I think people are going for when they use this word is, rather, a lack of drama or action (as we know it).

It’s not so much boring as it is different. Most American shows build excitement by intentionally stirring up drama and putting the cast into situations to create a desired reactions that will fire up the audience, such as anger, fistfights, and lots of tears and swearing. Most Japanese shows, however, lack that aggression, and when we see a production with an extreme reduction in something we’re used to seeing in excess, we tend to perceive it as “lacking.” However, in this case, it isn’t that it is lacking substance, rather that the substance is delivered in a different, more subtle way than we’re used to.

Without the drama and the instigations, everything about this show just looks so natural (the show itself is said to be unscripted). We find it easier to identify with the cast and the situations. The mundane nature and awkwardness of it all makes it more relatable to viewers, as opposed to shows in which characters are made to appear “cool” or “interesting,” resulting in skewed ideals of what should be “normal.” But that isn’t the case with Terrace House. In fact, you could even say they do the exact opposite, by taking those ideals and standards, and flipping them on their heads.

For example, while some of the residents are indeed models, actors, or some other form of “ideal” persona, this isn’t emphasized. In Terrace House, even the most “admirable” of these figures are depicted in their most casual, most awkward, and most relatable moments, making even the most out of reach person seem that much more “like us.” It is this very approach that makes the show entertaining by appealing to our inherent voyeuristic nature by allowing us to witness their every move. We want to see them be awkward. We want to see them screw up. We want to laugh with them, cry with them. It makes us feel less alone. But we also want to see them succeed, fall in love, and make happy endings. It’s all unlike typical reality TV shows — and very much like our own lives. In that sense, it gives us hope.

(JP) Link: Why Terrace House Is Popular With Highly Conscious Americans: Show Described as “Shockingly Polite”

TH’s Curated Gossip Couch

Terrace House’s “Commentator Couch” adds a meta-narrative to the show that only enhances its charm. (Source: Netflix)

Another aspect that makes Terrace House so interesting is the panel commentary, or what I like to call the “curated gossip couch.”

At around episode 27 of the first season, we are introduced to a completely separate cast: the commentators. The panel is made up of several well-known Japanese celebrities and talents, all of who serve no particular purpose to the show other than to talk about what the folks back at Terrace House are doing. They’ll laugh with and at them, poke fun yet also offer support, and basically say everything that we were thinking but didn’t want to say. There is a panelist interlude about two times in each episode.

(JP) Link: Terrace House Tokyo Studio Members: Introducing the Commentators!

Another aspect that makes Terrace House so interesting is the panel commentary, or what I like to call the “curated gossip couch.”

At around episode 27 of the first season, we are introduced to a completely separate cast: the commentators. The panel is made up of several well-known Japanese celebrities and talents, all of who serve no particular purpose to the show other than to talk about what the folks back at Terrace House are doing. They’ll laugh with and at them, poke fun yet also offer support, and basically say everything that we were thinking but didn’t want to say. There is a panelist interlude about two times in each episode.

(JP) Link: Terrace House Tokyo Studio Members: Introducing the Commentators!

The commentators resemble the flow of traditional Japanese variety TV shows, which typically show a recorded segment (“VTR”) that’s then followed up with commentary by a panel of studio hosts and commentators. The TH panel in particular offers a different sort of relatability to the audience that we may not realize right away. It is in our nature to gossip. Many of the conversations we have with our friends tend to be about our other friends. On the other hand, most of us are also aware that, whether we like to think about it or not, we are also talked about by others.

We find ourselves able to relate to both groups. We see ourselves in both the House cast and the commentators. We feel the shame and disappointment when we watch our favorite cast member get rejected by their crush, but we also feel the humor when we laugh at the commentators’ jokes about the stupid thing another cast member did. We are both the gossipers, and the ones being gossiped about.

Is Terrace House Really a “Show About Nothing?”

In the end, maybe it is this very idea that the show is “about nothing” that makes it so relatable. After all, we all tend to view our own lives as our very own personal TV drama. And yet, much like the show, no matter how interesting we think our lives are, the majority of our waking hours are spent doing the exact “nothing” we see on Terrace House. Very rarely do we find ourselves in the overly-dramatic situations often portrayed in American reality shows. This makes Terrace House more of a reality show than the actual “reality shows” we’re accustomed to. (I mean, when was the last time you found yourself stranded on a deserted island? Or had 10 gorgeous singles fighting for your hand in marriage?)

However, can we really say it is a show about “nothing?” Would the producers really have put together a show if they didn’t expect SOMETHING to happen? Perhaps it’s accurate to say that Terrace House is a show about “nothing in particular,” as opposed to nothing at all. At least until some kind of event occurs to finally make it about “something…”

Despite a seeming lack of “purpose,” that doesn’t mean it is completely devoid of it. You just have to pay closer attention to notice it.

I’m going to be frank: Terrace House is, in its very essence, a dating show. Plain and simple. They may tell you it is about nothing, because for much of the show, there really is a lot of “nothing” happening. However, we all know the expectations of everyone involved: the audience, the commentators, the producers, and even the residents themselves know that eventually, someone (or several someones) are going to catch feelings… and that’s when the “something” begins.

The first few episodes after a new member enters usually follows the same pattern: they introduce themselves, learn about the other residents, and soon enough find the one or two they “click” with, forming a friendship. Yet without fail, that one question always finds its way into conversation: “Which member of Terrace House do you like the most?”

Of course the residents all want to know who fancies who. Though they may not say it, they all have the same thing on their minds, and they want to know what they’re up against. If the answer is a member different from the asker’s love interest, they will most likely pep the new member up, and offer support in helping them cultivate love. However, if they happen to like the same person, some serious tension can begin to form, and friendships can soon become rivalries. (Come on, like we didn’t already know that was going to happen…)

And if we can figure it out, you can bet that this was already on the producers’ minds way in advance. It may seem random and spontaneous, but in actuality, creating romance between the cast members (as well as drama) is the ultimate goal of the producers, craftily curtained behind a veil of innocence and cleverly portrayed by showing the members’ relatability and naïveté more than the equally crafty thoughts that clearly happen behind the scenes, as they calculate their next move to land their dream guy/girl before one of the other residents do.

Terrace House is an unscripted dating show, but a dating show nonetheless. The producers know what they’re doing when they choose the settings, select the residents, etc. Everything about the show is set it up in such a way that a plot is not even necessary… because the plot eventually constructs itself.

Is It Really Unscripted?

But how unscripted is it, really? (Picture: studio-sonic / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

Terrace House may not have an official script, but nothing’s truly unscripted when a camera is (knowingly) involved. When you know you are going to be on camera, you are still most likely to be forming a script in your head. Sure, the residents may get used to living with cameras on them, and sure, they may act natural. But there is still no way that it is ever going to be 100% truly authentic as long as they are aware of the cameras. There is a huge difference between on-camera naturalness, and pure, candid naturalness.

Deny it all you want, the evidence is apparent when you compare so-called “unscripted” shows such as Terrace House (amongst any other reality TV show) with similar shows in which the cast is actually unaware of the camera (such as Candid Camera, and practically every prank and hidden camera show). There’s a reason hidden camera shows are so fun to watch: the audience already knows the cast is completely unaware they are being watched, so nobody, not even the cast themselves, has any idea what they are going to say or do until the moment occurs.

It’s the unpredictability, the element of surprise, and the lack of filter that leaves viewers at the edge of their seat. However, with reality shows, though technically unscripted, there is still some level of predictability. The audience has an idea of who likes who, how this person is going to react to that person, etc. The cast members themselves will also likely have an idea of what they are going to do (or not do), regardless of having a script to go by or not. If even atoms are said to react differently when they “know” they’re being watched, you can bet your last penny that people are exactly the same.

There’s even documented evidence within the show itself that buttresses this theory. While it is a general rule of thumb for (most) TV show actors to ignore the camera when filming, their presence nonetheless holds some influence over their actions. In one particular scene, one of the cast members actually slips up and blurts out that she tends to “let it all out” when she knows she’s on camera. This begs the question: if she admits to the presence of the camera influencing her decision on whether to say certain things or not, how many other scenes in the entirety of the series have played out differently than it otherwise would have had there been no cameras? How many things have been left unsaid (or conversely, been revealed) on purpose because of the cameras?

(JP) Link: A Terrace House Slip-up That Confirms It Might Be Staged

Another concern is the cast members’ allotted screen time. Being unscripted, one would expect each member to get an equal amount of time on camera. However, as the series progresses, we recognize this isn’t true. Despite the producers’ claim to film in a way in which everyone is given equal attention (e.g., avoiding techniques such as zoom-ins and music changes to direct the audience’s focus to a certain cast member or evoke a particular mood), we see this inequality in the way the cast members’ individual stories play out.

When one member gets into a situation (for example, a developing relationship, a breakup, a fight with a friend, work drama, etc.), we notice the episodes drawing an increasing amount of focus on that situation, no matter how subtly so. In the end, it is simply another clever production method used to subconsciously draw focus to a certain thing while visibly appearing to do the opposite (not unlike reverse psychology).

An interesting thing to note about the show and the cast dynamics is that the members actually sit down to watch previous recordings together. This could either be a good thing, or a really, really bad one. While it may indeed help cultivate a closer camaraderie between the group as they watch each other’s failures and awkward moments and offer support to each other, it is also serves a huge potential as a trigger for animosity and threats to morale. (For example, jealousy).

In a particular off-camera incident, one cast member even accused another of doing a certain thing just because they “wanted more screen time.” Why would this be an issue in the first place unless there had been some prior acknowledgement between the cast and that staff that certain actions could result in a bigger role in this show in which there are supposedly no roles at all?

In other words, while the show itself may be unscripted, what is said is still curated, and the acting is still very much staged.

(JP) Link: Suspicions of Terrace House Being Staged, and a Voice Speaks Out…

The Issue with the Format

So now you’re probably thinking, okay, so maybe it isn’t as natural as everyone says… but who cares? It’s still entertaining!

And you would be correct! I’m not necessarily saying that this is a bad thing (not so much as misleading). But are there any issues that can arise from this sort of set up?

The first issue is how the residents are not all starting on equal ground, as we may be led to believe. This comes from a very Japanese concept called “reading the air” (空気を読む; kuuki o yomu) which is basically a person’s ability to read between the lines and know how to (and not to) react or respond in a situation. However, not everybody is as adept at this as others, which can set some of the more awkward or inexperienced members at a disadvantage.

Another is the casting selection. The members are always a group of six people, exactly three men and three women. This assumes that all members will be heterosexual (whether or not orientation is confirmed before selection is unknown, however), or at the very least, in the event an LGBT+ couple would form, it would automatically set the members of opposite gender at a disadvantage, as all three of them would now have to compete with each other for the last remaining single opposite-gender member (leaving the two unchosen members single until the cast is rotated again).

Finally, and one of the most problematic, is the necessity to police members’ actions and make sure they stay within the lines of what is safe and acceptable. Because there is no script, there is also room for members to cross lines, such as one particularly controversial moment in which sexual harassment and consent became a major issue.

In the episode, one of the male residents forces a kiss on his date, despite her discomfort and obvious drunkenness. (Other reports say there were several more such kisses off-camera, and that the woman was uncomfortable with the entire situation.) Later on, to his disappointment, the woman flat out rejected his advances, stating she only saw him “as a friend.”

As if the incident itself wasn’t bad enough, the severity of the situation seemed to fly right over the commentators’ heads, as one member laments in the man’s favor (saying that her straightforward rejection “hurt his feelings”), and another sexualizes her reaction to the kiss as having the “look of a woman” (in other words, assuming that his aggression awoke some sort of sexual passion within her, and not that she might have actually just been disgusted with it). Thankfully, some of the female members called them out and remind them that maybe the woman really was just not into him, that his kiss did not necessarily “turn her on,” and that no amount of forcing from the man’s side “would have changed that.”

It’s obvious that Terrace House isn’t without its flaws. Yet at least we can rest at ease that while there may have been a few bad apples, for the most part, the cast is generally agreeable and an enjoyment to watch, regardless if it is scripted or not. The calmness of the show brings about a much needed change of pace from the drama already at work in our lives.

Ultimately, we come to understand that what makes Terrace House so enjoyable is not the storyline but the relatability of the characters. We all see our own lives as our own personal unscripted TV drama, in which there is no script, no plot, and no outtakes, other than those that we make for ourselves. When we watch Terrace House, we don’t just see the lives of the cast unfold; we also see our own.

Krys is a Japanese-fluent, English native currently based in the US. A former Tokyo English teacher and translator for several Japanese companies, Krys now works full time as a freelance artist, writer and translator with a focus on subjects related to Japanese language and culture.

Originally published at https://unseenjapan.com on August 5, 2019.

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The Japan you don't learn about in anime. Stories about people and events in Japan, past and present. By Unseen Japan Press.

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