Culture

Enjoy the show: Reality TV is nice now

Finding tranquility in shows like ‘Terrace House’ and ‘The Great British Baking Show’

Culture

we’re here to make friends

Culture

Enjoy the show: Reality TV is nice now

Finding tranquility in shows like ‘Terrace House’ and ‘The Great British Baking Show’

In an early episode of Japan’s hit reality TV series Terrace House: Boys and Girls in the City, two of the cast members plan to go for a run together.

“When do you want to go for a jog,” asks Makoto, a 20-something college student and aspiring baseball player.

“Anytime,” says Minori, a fellow student and part-time model.

“Any time?”

“But how many miles?”

“Going there and back, 15 to 20 minutes.”

“How about tomorrow? I can run tomorrow.”

“Okay. What time? At night?”

“At night. Around 6 or 7?”

“You’ll be back?”

“I’ll be back.”

This conversation goes on for minutes, which roughly translates into eons in the world of modern reality television. And it’s not the only conversation about the run in the episode: A celebrity panel made up of Japanese actors, models, and television personalities discuss it at length, even dissecting the moment Minori asks if she has a stain on her backside after sitting on the grass. A summary for the episode might read, simply, “Minori and Makoto go for a run” — and yet I watched it mesmerized and happy, absorbed by the quiet rhythm of the conversation.

Terrace House, which has been a smashing success in Japan since it premiered in 2012, aired a new season as a Netflix Original in 2015, and has garnered legions of followers and piles of positive reviews since then. It’s also very, very boring. In fact, it breaks basically every reality television show formula that America’s been perfecting since the first seasons of Survivor and The Real World, where supposedly regular people are nonetheless prodded into insane conflicts within minutes of meeting each other.

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It’s not the only Netflix offering that has been importing a new strain of reality television to America’s shores for the last couple of years, and changing my own TV habits. The Great British Bake Off (known as The Great British Baking Show in the U.S. due to copyright issues) serves audiences a friendly, low-budget cooking competition that never moves from a simple lawn tent, and features extraordinarily normal contestants alongside extraordinarily kind judges. To date, the show’s biggest controversy, “Bingate,” involved an editing decision that wrongly implied one player had perhaps intentionally removed another's baked Alaska out of a communal freezer on a warm day, forcing it to be thrown away once it melted. (It turns out she did not, because why in the world would anyone do something like that?)

GBBO, like Terrace House, took the U.K. by storm before heading to America with a few seasons’ lag time. Also like Terrace House, its following is snowballing despite a seemingly obvious flaw: The show almost completely lacks large-scale tension or drama. At the same time, America’s once-insatiable appetite for reality television seems to be dwindling. Not only are reality shows being canceled in favor of big-budget scripted dramas, but the popular reality series of the past are being toned down: Networks are turning toward pleasant and inoffensive kids’ versions of cooking shows, like Chopped Junior, Kids Baking Champion, and Master Chef Junior, to lift ratings while The Real Housewives franchise has taken such a clear step away from table flipping that one of the show’s biggest stars, Bethenny Frankel, returned after a five-year hiatus because of the positive change in tone.

What is so magnetic about boring television? Obviously, the very fact that it is boring. The traditional American formula for reality television — huge personalities, forced conflict, isolation, competition, heavy editing, alcohol, sex — is all about creating drama, and has increasingly mirrored the real world: The Donald Trump that made the ratings for The Apprentice skyrocket is the same Donald Trump who is now president, and picking fights with Kim Jong Un on Twitter. If seeing our chaotic reality recreated on screen now feels less appealing — not everyone turns to fiction just to have the real world reflected right back at them, without even the thrill of an expert acting performance — then it reasons an opposite value like tranquility might suck in a significant segment of viewers.

Terrace House is basically the exact opposite of American “house” reality shows. None of the cast members seem to be looking to become “reality stars,” and they can keep their regular jobs, their lives, their phones, and their friends. They aren’t competing for anything, and they can leave the show peacefully whenever they feel ready. The house is very nice, but it’s not huge or lavish (“It has a dishwasher!” exclaimed one cast member during the first episode, as the others gathered around the appliance); it has a pool, but it’s modest in size.

The scenes and cuts are long, many of them without a soundtrack. Instead of being hauled to forced challenges and activities, the cast lounges on the couch and cooks meals. Watching an episode feels almost like guided meditation. Even the color palette of the house is neutral. You can’t glance away from the screen to your phone or tablet because of the subtitles. Sure, crushes and dates happen on the show, but they happen slowly, unfolding in a way that is eerily similar to how they do in real life. The difference between an American reality “house” show and Terrace House may be the difference between a one-night-stand and a six-month crush.

To be clear, GBBO and Terrace House are not looped burning yule log videos. Plots develop, conflict occurs, and people are sometimes jerks, but it happens without the scaffolding present in many American reality shows that has been perfected over the last decade to magnify drama. These small deviations from the placid norm then feel even more thrilling: In one episode of Terrace House, the house has a small party for one of the cast members. The conversation turns to each of their dreams, and Mizuki, an office worker, begins crying when she realizes she isn’t working toward a long-term goal. Her misty eyes would barely register on the scale of shows like The Bachelor, but Terrace House's intimate world, it feels as if something profound is being revealed.

Alongside the calm draw of the everyday, both GBBO and Terrace House show an alternate but parallel world with every episode. There is something comforting about watching the small formalities of another culture. Each scene in Terrace House includes quick bows, the removal of shoes indoors, everyone saying, “I’m glad to be here,” followed by the response, “We’re happy to have you.” Meals, especially, come with joyful, repeated, predictable rituals — such as a quick bow of thanks before and after eating — that sequence after sequence of dinner nonetheless becomes easy to consume.

On GBBO, the dry and subtle British wit of presenters Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins lies in stark contrast to the brash humor of American reality television, while the overly polite, modest, and emotionally reserved contestants are a welcomed break from American cast members whose main priority is win and/or to become known. It seems impossible that anyone on GBBO would ever utter the American reality television staple: I’m not here to make friends! In fact, it seems like everyone would enjoy making a friend, right after they put the finishing touches on their jellyroll.

American networks and producers have certainly noticed our expanding tastes. Terrace House’s first season on U.S. soil, Aloha State, was so successful that it was extended by 12 episodes. The next season, Opening New Doors, is slated to air on Netflix in Spring 2018. At the same time, some American television shows have slowly slid away from their conflict-oriented formats. America’s Got Talent and American Idol dumped their mean judges in exchange for smiling faces; HGTV has found more and more success in quieter, collaborative shows like Fixer Upper and Property Brothers than Bravo’s higher-stress Flipping Out and Million Dollar Listing.

In what looks like a nod to the GBBO formula is NBC’s forthcoming Making It reality crafting competition series, in which hosts Amy Poehler and Nick Offerman guide a group of crafters through a series of challenges. The show, which doesn’t yet have a specific air date, aims for an wholesome tone — the promo pics showcase Offerman’s friendly beard next to Poehler in overalls, like a cheery, modern take on American Gothic — while the idea of making simple, handmade crafts utilizes a wholesome cultural nostalgia in the same way that baking cream horns and gingerbread biscuits does for the British.

There are fewer hints that there will soon be an American counterpart to Terrace House — MTV’s newly launched Floribama Shore comes off like a somehow drunker Jersey Shore. That formula might always exist, as stranger people are featured and cheaper shortcuts to manufacture drama are created. But we can dream of a quiet show, set somewhere like Portland, Minneapolis, or any other city conducive to sitting around and thinking, where cast members cry together when contemplating their future dreams and not because of the fallout from inebriated shit-talking in a confessional booth. The emotions will be rescaled to a more manageable level, where the most shocking thing in the world is something like a baked Alaska being thrown into the bin.

Back at Terrace House, Mikoto and Minori are finally having their jog. It’s night, it’s starting to rain, and Minori has borrowed an oversized jersey of Mikoto’s to run in. (Don’t worry, they discussed their running attire at length earlier at dinner). It’s no surprise that the conversation during their run is mundane, and afterwards they sit in the grass, mostly silent except for the sound of an evening breeze moving through the park.

“The wind is perfect,” she says, suddenly rendering the atmosphere intimate.

“Sure is perfect,” he returns. Then he adds, with a wide smile, “I might ask you to accompany me again.”

It’s a little moment: the rain, the breeze, and the grass, with a backdrop of Tokyo skyscrapers in the background. All paired with a small hint that someone’s crush likes them and they like them back: that two people in the universe have made a connection. The moment is earned through all of the not-so-exciting things that came before. The moment is real.

Sarah Aswell is an essayist and humor writer living in Missoula, Montana
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