Ten minutes and 33 seconds into the 20th episode of the Netflix reality series Terrace House: Opening New Doors, Tsubasa Sato and Shion Okamoto share their first kiss. The show isn’t exactly documenting an explosion of untamed passion; Tsubasa, a quiet hockey star who’s been too focused on her sport for the past several years to date, initially backs away as her affable, laid-back model boyfriend leans in. When their lips finally touch, for the briefest moment, their bodies remain as far apart as two kids stiffly slow dancing at a middle school semi-formal. Yet—with the possible exception of the Valentine’s Day scene where Shion surprises Tsubasa with a bouquet of flowers and the confession he likes her—that chaste, awkward, split-second kiss is the most romantic thing I’ve seen on TV this year.
This is the magic of Terrace House, a Japanese reality phenomenon that throws six strangers together in a gorgeous home and… well, that’s about it. Set in the sleepy winter-sports enclave Karuizawa, Opening New Doors (whose fourth season appeared on Netflix earlier this week) is the latest installment of a franchise that began with a house in beachy Shōnan and has also set series in Tokyo and Hawaii. Like The Real World, it’s premised on the assumption that, when left to their own devices, young singles from a variety of different backgrounds will inevitably find some way to entertain millions of viewers. But unlike The Real World, which notoriously explored “what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real,” Terrace House sees no fundamental conflict between politesse and realness. It is a shining example of what many critics have identified as a new vogue for “nice” reality TV.
What separates the show from MTV’s 26-year-old institution—which has been barely-watchable for more than half its run—as well as most other American reality series, is its casting. Thanks to some combination of cultural differences and purer intentions, the producers of Terrace House avoid belligerent exhibitionists, amateur actors and not-here-to-make-friends narcissists in favor of young adults who behave like actual human beings. They aren’t all lovable; there are spoiled brats, sad sacks and immature manchildren. But because no one seems to be self-consciously performing their personality for the cameras, the character arcs feel more believable, and therefore more resonant. Friendships and rivalries develop just as slowly on the show as they do in real life. Romantic relationships like Tsubasa and Shion’s have a unique will-they-or-won’t-they intensity.
There’s some irony in the fact that a seemingly unstructured, low-concept Japanese series has managed to tell a love story that feels more authentic and moving than just about anything I’ve ever seen on American reality TV. Sex and romance have preoccupied the makers of stateside reality programming since its birth, in the 1973 PBS experiment An American Family. Both a sign of the times and a harbinger of things to come for the genre, the show ended up documenting the dissolution of the family in question after its patriarch was caught cheating.
The Real World has captured a few beautiful unions over the years, most memorably the one between late HIV/AIDS activist Pedro Zamora and his loyal partner Sean Sasser, in an early San Francisco season. But the 21st-century Real World is more often a place for day-drunk frat types to hook up, fight each other and—most importantly—audition for lifelong roles on MTV’s reality-competition franchise The Challenge. This approach has also yielded a handful of site-specific shows about the young and intoxicated, with endless romantic sagas that range from sad and volatile (Jersey Shore’s Sam and Ronnie) to cynical and careerist (reality lifers Spencer Pratt and Heidi Montag, who got their start on The Hills).
The dramatic change in MTV’s unscripted offerings coincided, of course, with the reality-TV revolution of the early 2000s—a shift in programming led by such durable concepts as Survivor, American Idol and, lest we forget, The Apprentice. The Bachelor set the template for the genre’s approach to romance, pitting women against each other for the love of one allegedly exceptional man. Studded with “rose ceremonies,” night-vision trysts and catty confessionals, the series still thrives on editing contestants to fit stereotypes like good girl, slut and gold digger. (Though the Bachelorette spinoff has also endured, it’s telling that men battling over a woman consistently attract a smaller audience.) The archetypal dating show couple—a conventionally attractive woman eager to fight for an engagement ring on national TV and a successful man who enjoys being publicly fought over—is basically Barbie and Ken on an ego trip.
Their episodes may be less tightly structured, but the characters on fly-on-the-wall reality franchises like Bravo’s Real Housewives and E!’s Kardashian Televisual Universe are typically just as hot, rich, self-absorbed, gender normative and exhibitionistic. This tightly edited, sometimes apparently staged subgenre has a way of flattening its characters’ most intriguing stories, whether it’s Caitlyn Jenner’s transition or Lamar Odom’s brush with death. What is most salient about these shows’ romances, always, is that they play out between people who’ve monetized their lives as soap operas. It’s not they aren’t compelling to watch so much as that, in my experience, reality-TV couples are often less relatable than even their fictional counterparts.
What Tsubasa and Shion have that so many of these pairs lacked—besides tact, humility, good intentions and healthy senses of shame—is chemistry that feels entirely specific to them. Their very different personalities complement each other even as they subtly defy gender norms: While Tsubasa is ambitious and hard-working, so emotionally invested in her hockey career that a bad game can reduce the usually stoic 24-year-old to tears, Shion dreams of raising a big family in the country. He often marvels at how her commitment inspires him. His relaxed affect contrasts with her quiet intensity. She sees herself as plain and boyish, whereas his livelihood relies on his pop-idol good looks. She has trouble communicating her feelings, but he always knows just what to say. Yet their shared ingenuousness makes even their roommates seem superficial by comparison.
And sometimes they are. The people on Terrace House are often likeable but never perfect, and their flawed relationships illuminate the less idyllic aspects of dating: the unreciprocated crushes, the terrible first dates, the unbridgeable gaps in age or experience, the curse of mutual physical attraction between otherwise incompatible cast members. All of it feels uniquely real, because all of it unfolds on a human scale and timetable. Tsubasa and Shion may be the first Terrace House couple to steal my heart, but I’d be surprised if they were the last.