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The small screen needs the small mercies of ‘Terrace House’

by Jennifer Bernstein

Contributing Writer

Television has long been my connection to home. White Walkers ushering in an apocalyptic winter, Cold War sleeper agents going rogue, robots running amok in an Old West theme park — all of these have but a passing resemblance to my former life in New York. However, beyond mere entertainment, the act of watching in the moment puts me back in sync with millions of fellow viewers back home.

A third of the way through Season 2 of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” it occurred to me that a little bit of distance might be a good thing. Those who have read Margaret Atwood’s novel by the same name will already know its themes of misogyny and social control taking place in a dystopian U.S., where environmental catastrophe and epidemic infertility have given rise to a theocratic authoritarian regime called Gilead. Cleaving to the bones of the original novel, the first season of the show debuted in April 2017 and found resonance among many in the age of Donald Trump. A year later, with the U.S. in the throes of anti-feminist backlash and reports of family separations at its borders, it feels like “The Handmaid’s Tale” has become too real.

Ironically, it has been a reality TV show that has offered welcome relief. “Terrace House” is a Japanese show on Fuji TV and Netflix in which six attractive young strangers live together under one roof. At first I resisted because it seemed vapid and derivative, reviving a concept pioneered by “The Real World” that sought to find out “what happens when people stop being polite … and start getting real.” On “Terrace House,” however, people remain polite and the show eschews the histrionics, confessionals and other contrivances we now associate with the genre.

While the show’s housemates may have their share of disagreements, conflict is not the driving force. The producers claim that the show is unscripted, which generally seems to be the case. Without provocations injected into the action, real-life drama unfolds at a slower pace than most Western reality TV fans are used to. The initial episodes border on soporific, because 50 percent of ordinary life is made up of awkward introductions and banal small talk. The payoff for the slowness is what appears to be the honest intimacy of daily life: The housemates begin to form bonds, flirt shyly and, of course, develop romances. Within the quiet of this show emerges the joy of first love, the agony of heartbreak and the sorrow of saying goodbye — emotions that can make the most jaded of TV watchers invested.

In the latest season of “Terrace House,” one of the girls comes home in the evening after a hard day of hockey practice and her housemate offers to pour her a cold glass of orange juice — because that’s what she would normally drink. It’s a quiet supportive gesture — one that is wholesome, sweet and atypical. Perhaps it’s a sentiment that comes from my own peculiar kind of media fatigue, but in an age where the people we see on screen are constantly pitted against each other for bigger and bigger fights, such gestures are a much-appreciated rarity.

“Terrace House Opening New Doors” is now streaming on Netflix and airs on Fuji Television every Monday at 12:25 a.m.