A lot of people across the country probably think I live in a bubble. The idea that my diverse, turbulent, grimy, deafening city is a bubble is absurd to me, but I have to come clean. I have been spending a lot of time recently in a different bubble—inside the ivory walls of “Terrace House.”
“Terrace House” is a Japanese reality show on Netflix. It follows six beautiful Japanese men and women who move into a pristine house in Tokyo. They eat lots of tasty food, study for school, take modeling gigs, engage in chaste flirtations, talk about their lonely lives. Trivial and narrow-minded? Maybe at first. But “Terrace House” is not just a reprieve from unrelenting weight of 2017. It’s also a vicious commentary on the pitfalls of surveillance and global interconnectedness. It’s an ever-expanding bubble that threatens to shatter by the end, and one of the best and most fascinating experiments on TV.
A second season of “Terrace House,” set in Hawaii, arrived on Netflix last week. Part one of the first season is small and gorgeous. Two girls vent their minor grievances to each other over a bubble bath. A boy and girl go on silent running dates. Another date involves looking at cows. There’s no politics—constancy, calm, and utter aesthetic beauty. It reminded me that a whole universe can exist inside one savory bite of ramen—or inside the tense, enthralling moment just before a kiss.
But late into the season, the house’s members start to realize that the show is evolving into a startlingly huge phenomenon. They’re in a bubble, but one that’s floating over the entire world, weathering jeers and catcalls. So the show begins to mutate from its stasis and develop a meta-layer: house members watching the show inside the house and on the show itself. The show switches from an honest take on six lives, to six lives honestly confronting the reality of being on a show.
And so the second stage occurs, which is the revolving door: members leave the house, when the pressure is too much to bear, and are replaced. The original six stayed together for 13 episodes; there was an unspoken bond of resolving to slowly learning each other’s secrets and insecurities, gaining each other’s trust, and weathering fights together. That’s thrown out the window once new members—increasingly full-time models, actors, or performers—start arriving, each wholly aware that every movement and word is a statement of identity. These members come tense and verbally armed, ready to build a brand, at the expense of house unity.
The new sport becomes watching each member come in, try to play the game, and get tossed off the bucking bull. Hikaru enters with a rugged pout, negging every girl in sight; when he’s unexpectedly rebuffed by one, though, he realizes he isn’t coming off how he wants to: “It’s like I’m Yuki – I don’t like it,” he mutters angrily, in reference to a past member who was friendzoned. And Natsumi enters and tries to grab the alpha girl position, before flying into a rage because her image is called into question. Suddenly, all the fights are actually about being on the show. And before any kind of true reconciliation can happen, they flee.
Thus the third stage: housemates going behind the show’s back, so that “Terrace House,” the show, and “Terrace House,” the house, are irrevocably different. (I couldn’t possibly spoil the show’s massive plot twist here.) All pretense of reality is lost: it becomes impossible to tell which interactions are staged, and which ones are genuine. A far more interesting psychological experiment takes its place: watching ordinary people seeing themselves mulling life-changing decisions in real time, being yanked back and forth between stardom and truth.
I started watching the show with so much trust, and as an escape route. That it was able to so forcefully betray me only made me more obsessed. In this era, bubbles can only last so long before they explode or waft away.