Those of us lucky to live our lives indoors during a pandemic might yearn for an escape from the all-too-familiar confines of our homes and apartments. Luckily, there’s television, which has the capacity to bring us to places more entertaining, and more engrossing, than we’re used to. Like, for instance … another house.
The latest installment of the Japanese reality show “Terrace House” premiered on Netflix last week, giving fans the long-awaited continuation of its Tokyo 2019-20 season. The show, which streams in more than 190 countries and whose cult following includes some of the Dodgers, follows a recognizable format: Six strangers live together in a beautiful house, and cameras watch what happens next.
The group, which is always comprised of three men and three women, possesses an envious combination of youth, talent and good looks. Lifelong friendships develop. Romance blooms. Drama unfolds.
The twist? As the show’s panelists, six television personalities fan the flames by poking fun at housemates in gossipy interludes. A misstep while living in the house might mean panelists bestow upon you an unflattering nickname you’ll wear for the rest of the season. (Just ask Tatsuya Uchihara, better known to fans as the guy at the heart of the “Meat Crime.”) These commentators, combined with the timeless entertainment of people-watching, have made “Terrace House” a reality TV favorite.
As actress and panelist You promises at the start of every episode, “All that we’ve provided is a beautiful home and automobiles. There is no script at all.” Like many other entries in the genre, though, “Terrace House” — whose dramatic charms work best when taken at face value — does follow a script, albeit an unwritten one: Play along with the storyline painted by showrunners and panelists, and reap the benefits of a successful “Terrace House” run. Break the spell by appearing to cash in on TV popularity and be shunned by panelists, housemates and fans alike.
In this way, “Terrace House” is a potent reminder of constant pressure we face to be (or at least seem) “authentic” in our daily lives — but it can be uncharitable in its treatment of those whose desires and ambitions it deems to be outside the rules. By suggesting, as actor and guest panelist Eiichiro Funakoshi noted this season, that the series “is one of the best opportunities to truly discover who you are,” it reveals how simplistic is reality TV’s conception of “the self” compared to our actual experience. And many of us have had no more time to ponder that self than right now, as we stay at home to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
Though “Terrace House” demands that housemates display purer motives, ignoring the benefits of being on the show is easier said than done. After participant and professional snowboarder Takayuki Nakamura gained free advertising by wearing his clothing brand on the show, “Terrace House” redditors started asking whether the company, Brew, takes international orders. Aspiring actors and models come on the show for similar reasons: Minori Nakada, who entered the house uncertain of her decision to pursue modeling, secured partnerships with the likes of Chloe and YSL; “Terrace House” alumna Lauren Tsai was cast in the third season of the FX show “Legion.”
While housemates may be aware of what a “Terrace House” stint can do for their careers, they have to remember that in the house they live as a person, not a brand. Basketball star Ryo Tawatari from the Tokyo 2019-20 season recently came under fire from housemates and panelists who suspected that his self-image, not his sport, were what motivated most of his actions in the house. He cut short a blossoming romance with housemate Violetta Razdumina, in what was theorized to be a move aimed at not upsetting his admirers outside the house. Once seen as likable and mature, Ryo quickly lost favor for his apparently calculated actions.
This isn’t the first time insincerity has been sniffed out in the house. Earlier seasons of the show, “Opening New Doors” and “Boys and Girls in the City,” ended on truly sensational notes when secret, off-camera relationships were revealed between castmates. In each case, panelists came to the same sexist conclusion: The women involved had a vested interest in projecting a more innocent (read: romantically and sexually inexperienced) image of themselves on television than was actually the case.
Although “Terrace House” confronts more extreme examples of performance, it turns out that our actions in real life might not be as unscripted as we think. The way we dress, the culture we consume, our resting face and even the luxury face mask that might cover it all demonstrate the mundane ways we perform good taste or self-security or poise for ourselves and one another. Embarrassingly, we perform even when the stakes are much lower, without the thought of overseas markets or French luxury brands knocking on our doors. Yet it’s enough to make us think twice about how we come off on our Instagram or Twitter feeds.
Though “Terrace House” panelists may frame such calculations as a form of falseness, projecting the image of put-togetherness isn’t necessarily a lie. Certainly, it’s no less “authentic” than following the unwritten script of a popular reality show. Rather, it’s a glimpse into a hopeful future. Isn’t who we want to be part of who we are?
A winning formula, in life if not always on “Terrace House,” might involve a more forgiving way of thinking about who we are — one that acknowledges that the self we show to others is not as much a façade as a revelation of who we hope to become.