[A friend recommended that I watch Terrace House: Boys and Girls in the City on Netflix to keep my Japanese listening in good practice with “real” conversation. Except despite that genre label “reality TV,” I doubt that anything I’m seeing is actually like… real. Nooo no no, it’s creepy instead!]
Terrace House: a plain record of six strangers – three men and three women — living together in a nice home with a nice car and no script! Hailed by critics as a gentler form of reality television without the exploitative excesses of American drama farms like The Real Housewives or The Bachelor, Netlfix’s Japanese docu-soap has won praise as unpretentious “real” reality television. Or, to paraphrase a friend, “Yeah, it’s reality TV, but it’s not stupid reality TV.”
Alright, sure, it’s not that stupid. It doesn’t have (much) contrived drama or forced romance or (thank god) any humiliating mini-games. Terrace House matches the blurb — six people just live together and get on with their lives. But oh man, how could anyone call it real either? And “wholesome?” No friend, it terrifies me! Big Brother is watching, the panopticon, living in a glass house… choose your strained metaphor. It’s my surveillance nightmare.
Like with most reality TV, Terrace House is marred by the obvious corrupting influence of feeling watched. The mere presence of film crews will invite subtle behavioral changes like, I dunno, one of those observer effects out of science where simply measuring a subject will change its properties. Of course, the residents of Terrace House aren’t as flighty as electrons. But then the cameras follow them almost everywhere – in the house, on the streets, at their workplace, during job interviews, while they sleep, and even into the bathroom (one scene shows two female members having a friendly chat over a bubble bath!). The stress must build. How could the participants not try to adjust their actions to present their most refined, rehearsed selves under such strict surveillance? To the extent that Terrace House observes “real” human behavior, it only does so when filtered through the participants’ awareness that everyone else is watching.
In our always-online age of Twitter and social media though, that “everyone” might as well really mean everyone, with hurtful consequences: an audience of maybe-millions not only watch but give unsolicited, often rude feedback to the participants (see my previous post for an example of the cruel language). But as much as it might seem that the distance across the cameras would insulate the participants from such insults, they do catch them online. Early in Boys and Girls in the City, the hairstylist Uchi complains of unfair criticism on Twitter. Though he never brings up the issue again, I couldn’t imagine carrying on in perfect confidence while under constant, mass criticism. It is, again, my nightmare. Assisted by technology then, the horror of Terrace House creeps beyond the mere anxious effects of being watched into an uncanny complex of participant action generating an audience reaction, thus affecting the participant’s future behavior and diluting the “reality” even further.
[It goes beyond words too. For example, in one of the most disconcerting moments, a “fan” travels all the way from Hokkaido to visit Uchi at his salon in Tokyo. Though he takes it graciously, he still seems a little confused or concerned that a fan would find him, in real life, at his workplace, during on-going filming. Would I even feel safe on the show?]
In less frightening but still odd moments, the show slips into uncanny ‘mirror’ moments that show how the participants adjust themselves to constant observation and feedback. Early in Boys and Girls in the City, the medical student Yuriko watches herself on YouTube doing a Terrace House promotional interview. But when she begins to speak in the video about joining the cast in order to “change herself,” the “reality” of Terrace House slips and the show descends into post-modern surrealism. Is she watching her old self, on the show, to figure out how she will change herself in future episodes? At that point, what distinguishes her from an actor? And who, exactly, is Yuriko trying to change herself into – her best “real” self as a medical student or a good character for the show? It’s so creepy!
On Yuriko again, the character-making comes to a head as she approaches her medical school graduation. She realizes that when she enters residency and begins to practice full-time with real patients, her participation in Terrace House might interfere with her long-term career ambitions. Or in other words, she can’t both be a medical resident working 80 hour weeks and a reality television star. Making the safe choice, she decides to quit the show after graduation …but not before she sets up a perfect cliff-hanger bombshell for the editors to mine for drama. She sits down with her fellow-physician ex-boyfriend at a coffee shop and proposes that they begin dating again. Then CUT – the episode ends on a tease.
The scene in the next episode feels so artificial: Yuriko slowly chooses the right words for the cameras and her ex squirms uncomfortably in his chair. For a second, his eyes wander until he glances right at the camera, as if working through a clear reluctance to reject her with such a vast potential audience. So, he makes it quick: he stone-cold declines, gives his polite excuses, and bolts before she starts crying (and she does cry!). With so many eyes watching, I can’t imagine a more nightmarish way to break up.
It’s worth mentioning the editing for scenes like the above in more detail too. Though no clear narrative exists in the meandering lives of the Terrace House participants, selective cuts like those in Yuriko’s climax create the illusion of crashing realizations and startling ultimatums. But taken off the air and returned to the ordinary, private settings of mere humanity, most of the events in Terrace House more resemble the mundane high and lows of young adulthood than moments of high drama. That really brings me to my biggest fear regarding reality television: to make a story for millions, the participants cede the ability to explain their own personal narratives while a set of savvy filmmakers cut snippets of their lives into a misleading show-reel and a group of snarky studio commentators build heroes and villains, winners and losers out of a group of just… normal people.
While writing this post, I kept falling into the trap that the filmmakers set up for the audience… I would catch myself calling the cast members “characters” or “contestants” when really, out of respect for their status as subjects in an unscripted “documentary,” I feel that they deserve a more narratively neutral term like “participant.” Take two last moments to illustrate the issue of dubious narrative development:
On the “character” end, the baseball player Makoto falls into a sort of villain arc as his athletic ambitions collapse against his mediocre practice regimen and a minor conflict with Uchi escalates into his almost total isolation from the rest of the cast. Makoto makes a few flaccid attempts to defend himself but – with another anxious glance right into the camera and I’m sure plenty of abuse online – he seems to realize that nothing he might say will pull him out of his narrative hole. So, he quits, the once affable jock painted into a corner as an aloof friend who couldn’t keep a secret and a profligate failure not bound for sports stardom.
…except the real human Makoto doesn’t exist in any such narrative villain arc. He’s just one of thousands of young, disappointed college athletes across Japan who make occasional social errors. The only difference? Those ordinary people didn’t have a camera crew hounding them for moments of weakness (like when it caught Makoto outside smoking a cigarette) or studio commentary breaks for comedians to mock their mistakes. The narrative only exists because the show’s editors invented one. Makoto’s own life story will have its ups and downs, but Terrace House arcs him towards a tragedy with little chance to recover.
On the “contestant” end, though Terrace House has no game to “win,” some of the participants still seem to treat it like one as implicit rivalries bubble up between the men over securing dates with the women. For example, in one outrageous moment, Uchi asks each woman out for a date simultaneously as if he were on The Bachelor. His boldness again betrays the false “reality” of Terrace House: in real life, I can’t imagine any of the women agreeing to go out with a man pursuing two others at the same time. But with the cameras rolling, smile, play the character! — maybe it’s all in the spirit of the game.
Later on though, the model Minori has trouble trusting Uchi’s commitment to her because of that initial stunt. The hosts praise Uchi for taking the initiative to push the stalled pseudo-love polygon forward. But can you blame Minori for feeling reluctant about the relationship when he had treated the possibility so flippantly before? It feeds back into my nightmares – a constant doubt that my partner had settled on me because I was only “good enough.” Oh, but on Terrace House it’s even worse because I was just the last contestant in a process of elimination! Though they won the “game,” how could Minori and Uchi ever build an authentic relationship with that start? The televised contrivance stole opportunity for them to create their own organic romance (if real attraction even existed beyond the pressure to give the cameras a good story!).
Maybe I just don’t “get” it, but Terrace House creeps me out more than any other TV program I’ve watched, even more than the “stupid” reality shows whose silly games and absurd subject matters at least distract from their artificiality. By contrast, Terrace House pretends to be unpretentious with its simple premise, meaning that when the mask of slick editing slips, the artificiality shines with much greater uncanniness. In a different way, I suppose Terrace House makes me uncomfortable because, for as much as I’ve argued that it isn’t “real,” it does depict a reality: the reality of human behavior when under watch in a world in which the global reach of surveilling tech companies like Netflix have ballooned audiences bigger than ever.
It’s an empathetic discomfort. When I imagine myself in the place of Terrace House’s participants, I wonder how I could cope with such an intense spotlight. As a teacher, I still sometimes struggle to stand in front of a classroom of thirty children! What if, on some off chance, one of my students would film me for a Tik Tok video and I ended up standing on the front page of reddit or wherever else for millions to see, like teachers sometimes do? Would the commenters leave cruel insults, would a false narrative build out of my control, would memesters morph me into a viral character, not human being (or would people even find me in real life, like that fan did of Uchi)? Am I the only one afraid of fame?
I’m not paranoid enough to worry about that slim-to-zero possibility day-by-day and – I hope – I’m secure enough to weather the scrutiny. But for an hour an episode when watching people submit to it voluntarily on Terrace House, it’s the stuff of nightmares.