A new E! show crafts an addictive, horrific fantasy out of real-life tabloid drama and rumors about the Church of Scientology
In two consecutive episodes of “The Arrangement,” the lead — aspiring actress Megan Morrison (Christine Evangelista, here making actual deer feel jealous about her doe-eyes) — wanders into scenes that could be lifted out of a horror movie. In one, she’s walking home from a bar, and suddenly the street looks darker and lonelier and usual, the windows of the dark buildings more forebodingly shuttered. In the other, she’s walking through the woods at night with nothing but a flashlight. The silence around her seems to grow louder and louder, before she trips on a plot device and thuds to the ground.
It’s completely incongruous — “The Arrangement” is a steamy drama about the hidden strings of a Hollywood romance, a fictional version of “E! True Hollywood Story.” But at the same time, the notes of horror make the show’s fractured fairy tale hit home. Perhaps it is a little over-the-top to remind our audience of B-movie thrillers in the midst of what is otherwise a negotiation between several rich adults. But the lingering taste of fear makes “The Arrangement” into a dark, delicious fantasy, one that feels voyeuristic even when it’s telling a scripted story.
To be fair, it’s not that fictional. “The Arrangement” is very careful not to name names, but it is hard to watch Megan’s romance with Hollywood action star Kyle West (Josh Henderson), a pretty boy with a killer smile and a lot of weird friends, and not immediately think of Katie Holmes’ marriage to Tom Cruise, who is a practicing and highly placed member of the Church of Scientology. “The Arrangement” takes many of the rumors around that partnership and casts them into its own what-if narrative. What if a well-established celebrity, fresh off of an awkward breakup, decided to settle down with someone his spiritual advisers set up for him? What would be said in that conversation? What would get written on the contract, a fiscal transaction with an awful lot of riders? And how would the woman in question feel about agreeing to marry a man she’s spent exactly one day with?
Partly because marriage can be so transactional — either openly or secretly, depending on the subculture and the setting — the idea is an arranged marriage feels familiar, if traditional to some and titillating to others. “The Arrangement” positions the contract, at first, as a kind of huge romantic gesture from a man who is too famous and wealthy to do anything casually — a Hollywood production, of sorts. Megan, enticed by the money, the status, and the man, signs by the end of the first episode. Kyle and Megan (portmanteaued, terribly, “Kygan” by the gossip rags in the show) genuinely like each other, and even seem to get each other in a way that feels romantic for both of them. (And for the audience; there’s a lot of time spent depicting Evangelista in tasteful silhouette, in the middle of some form of lovemaking, while Kyle produces some new impossibly darling romantic gesture every few scenes.)
But there’s this pesky other problem, and that’s that Kyle has basically handed over control of his life to this organization called the Institute of the Higher Mind. Michael Vartan plays Terence, the Institute’s “mentor” for Kyle who frequently instead seems to be his keeper, both in personal and professional affairs. From the start, he doesn’t like Megan, because she threatens the cushy intimacy that Terence has with Kyle.
That’s where the horror comes in. As Megan is suddenly welcomed into a world with extraordinary money and privilege — the clothes alone! — she finds that more and more strings are attached. Submitting to the narrative of the handsome prince means handing over a great deal of her privacy and freedom; the contract includes language about their future children, because she’ll get a higher “allowance” once they’re born. It’s a lot of control, masquerading as a kind of romantic and businesslike possession, the safety net of being owned. She can’t even have a dress hemmed to the length she wants; outfits are approved by Kyle’s “people,” whoever and wherever they are.
This news annoys Megan, who is trying on the dress in her living room, and she begins to try to assert herself, half-laughing with incredulity. But the attempt disappears, because the stylist then presents her with the “$80,000 grace note” — a diamond wreath of a necklace, heavy and glinting, that so astounds Megan she forgets about the hemline entirely. It’s a simple enough scene, with extraordinary subtext: Megan can be bought or dazzled into compliance, when push comes to shove. “The Arrangement” is not judgmental, it’s just presenting the obvious: Who wouldn’t take the necklace, the hot boyfriend, the life of apparent infinite happiness, the fairy tale ending offered on a platter?
“The Arrangement” has a lot of affection for the fairy tale. But it is also more than happy to rip it to pieces. By the end of the third episode sent to critics, a girl’s body has turned up, and investigators are knocking on Terence’s door. Megan has a nasty encounter with the blonde starlet who was her predecessor as Kyle’s arm candy, just a few months before Megan showed up for her “audition.” In between tabloids, morning shows, and movie deals, this is a big potential playground for storytelling drama, and by the third episode, “The Arrangement” has already gone in some interesting directions. It is absolutely a soap, but much more nakedly cynical — and curious about how naïve little Megan will survive the ravages of this particular fairy tale ending, which so frequently takes on the contours of horror.