Every second of every day social media rewards us for screaming at each other.
That's what gets the retweets. That's where the YouTube money is. No one's sharing your nuanced, political take on Facebook, you centrist coward. In 2019 consensus is a dirty word and the world is pitting us against one another in an algorithm race toward the chaos dimension. Pick up your pitchfork and pick a side.
It's time to get shouty. Time to have an extreme opinion about absolutely everything, "cancel" everyone who even mildly disagrees with you and launch them into the phantom zone.
I joke obviously. But I am also exhausted. Exhausted by endless confrontation, by the pressure to be 100 percent right on every single topic. Drained by the threat of permanent exclusion from well-meaning peer groups should I accidentally post a bad tweet about the wrong topic somewhere down the line. Or possibly in my distant past.
Terrace House is pure magic. The latest episodes of the current season, subtitled "Opening New Doors", were released on Netflix Tuesday. Terrace House has only recently burst into the cultural conversation in the West, but in Japan it's been around since 2015. Watch it. It will change your life.
In Terrace House three women and three men (usually in their twenties, or early thirties) occupy a house together and just… live life. Remember Big Brother? Or Survivor? Or any other reality show produced by psychopaths intent on locking mentally unstable people in confined spaces? Terrace House is kinda like that but also nothing like that.
Imagine the most dramatic moments in Western reality shows over the last 20 years. What do you see?
You're most likely imagining explosive conflict. Complete chaos. A spectacular betrayal or coup d'etat. A bait and switch based around terrible human beings doing terrible things. You watch these moments and you leave convinced the human race is doomed.
Terrace House is different. Watching Terrace House makes you feel that maybe, just maybe -- if we became a little more considerate -- we can get out of this hellhole alive.
Drama in Terrace House is someone accidentally forgetting to wash a plate after eating breakfast. Drama in Terrace House is a gentle chat, a humble apology, a solemn promise to make sure a minor conflict like this never happens again.
But mostly Terrace House is a show about real human beings interacting with one another minus the staged chaos that we've come to expect from "reality" TV.
Terrace House is a heartfelt one-to-one between a lost 19-year-old and a 31-year-old father figure, who understands what it means to feel directionless. Or a perfect slow-burn love story between a shy ice-hockey player and a male model. Terrace House indulges the kind of "people watching" that obsesses over the smaller details of communication -- non-verbal cues, awkward silences, first-date nerves or tearful goodbyes.
Terrace House is an anti-reality TV show that trades in something approaching "actual" reality. In Terrace House participants aren't locked inside a Skinner Box and forced to feast upon each other's souls for ratings. In Terrace House participants can come and go as they please, live their lives, go to regular jobs, visit family and friends.
There's zero competitive element. No one is "voted out". If someone wants to leave Terrace House they say, "I'm leaving Terrace House" and just… leave. Usually with food and drinks and a tearful goodbye from their fellow housemates.
Terrace House is relaxing on the couch with a good book and listening to the rain patter on the skylight. Terrace House is self care. Once upon a time I'd come home after a stressful day at work and run myself a warm bath.
Now I watch Terrace House.
Meet your hosts
Terrace House is anchored by a narrative device so obvious I can't believe other Western reality shows haven't copied it wholesale.
Roughly halfway through each episode Terrace House takes a break from people watching and brings in a team six commentators (famous comedians, actors usually) to discuss the goings-on in the house. It's precisely like after-show recap panels seen in Western TV. Only, instead of isolating it on YouTube or in podcast form, the panel is seamlessly integrated into the show itself.
It's pure genius.
For Western audiences the hosts help navigate nuances of Japanese culture we might otherwise have missed. Often it does the opposite. On many occasions I've seen myself explain away strange behaviour as a cultural difference only for the commentators to totally call out that behaviour as super-weird. Like the time an older character shaved his moustache to try and impress a younger girl on the show, or the moment a 19-year-old covered his eyes with two fingers to hide the fact he was crying.
In some ways the panellists are like fun, easygoing Japanese friends guiding you through an experience you might otherwise get lost in. They're funny, charming and charismatic. Sometimes they reflect an uncomfortable ingrained, institutional sexism (they spend a lot of time talking about one girl's breasts) but more often than not they impart genuine insights. Yoshimi Tokui, with his spectacular gift for re-creating inner monologue, is my favourite, closely followed by Yukiko Ehara, who'll often go directly against the grain with a bizarre comment from left field like a risque granny.
They clash, they argue, but like the personalities in the house, there's not a single disagreement that can't be smoothed over with a wry joke or a perfectly placed piece of self-deprecation.
In Terrace House everyone (even the panel) finds a way to get along.
The release valve
My brother-in-law, who introduced me to the show, told me Terrace House has quite literally changed the way he communicates at work. He manages a dozen people in a stressful high-pressure role. He says Terrace House has made him a better listener (and a better manager).
I totally get it. After mainlining Terrace House for the last month I've found myself imitating the behavioural cues of people I admire from the show. I'm mimicking the considerate way Shion Okamoto invites people into his universe, trying to channel the direct, active listening of Takayuki Nakamura. I'm a 37-year-old man who's long figured himself out, but I still find myself learning from the myriad ways people in Terrace House navigate the conflict that arises when strangers find themselves sharing a common space.
In Terrace House the creases that occur when personalities clash are ironed out and resolved almost effortlessly. We're not used to this in 2019 where we call out those differences with all the noise at our disposal, toss them into the meat grinder, and leave each other to burn in the funeral pyre that is social media.
Terrace House is like a release valve.
On difficult days, when depressed by the oppressive hum of the social media hellscape, I find myself longing for the calm of Terrace House. The simple pleasure of sinking into the couch, turning off my phone and dissolving into a world where the biggest problems feel meaningless and there's nothing that cannot be solved by the pure magic of human beings listening to one another, and treating each other decently.