'The Arrangement': TV Review

The Arrangement - H 2016
Courtesy of E!
Trashy, but not trashy enough.

E!'s new drama about a Hollywood relationship arranged by a powerful empowerment cult isn't based on Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, except for where it is.

My math may not be precise, but I'd guess that 95 percent of the allure of the new E! drama The Arrangement comes from the inference that the series, about a business deal romance between Hollywood's biggest star and a relatively unknown starlet, has its basis in speculation about the real-life marriage between a certain blockbuster icon and his WB-friendly spouse.

For reasons both legal and, possibly, legitimate, the creative team behind The Arrangement has gone out of its way to emphasize that this story, set against the backdrop of an insidious empowerment cult controlling many of Tinseltown's top names, has absolutely nothing to do with those tabloid-friendly nuptials — leaving The Arrangement only able to hint in the general direction of what is surely its most enticing hook.

If they don't want to play, they don't want to play. Bob's your uncle, The Arrangement.

The reality, after three episodes, is that The Arrangement both is and isn't clearly based on Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes. The premise is entirely lifted from the aroma around that relationship, our sense of its contrivances and compromises and the looming figure of Scientology behind it all. But on a practical and realistic level, of course it's not literally about that specific couple. If it were, it would surely be more seductive and, probably, more entertaining.

Premiering on Sunday (March 5), the first two episodes of The Arrangement coax enough tawdry conjecture from the premise and the possibility that the show is truly about the thing producers say it's not about to remain watchable. The third episode is about contract negotiations, a contrived scandal and a resolution lifted directly from an episode of Fox's Pitch, quickly severing my already thin attraction to the show.

The Arrangement comes from creator Jonathan Abrahams (Mad Men) and stars Christine Evangelista as Megan Morrison, an aspiring actress living the most quintessential of Hollywood lives: waitressing, rushing to auditions, partying with friends and dating an aspiring musician. Megan's successful reading for a mystery project attracts the eye of superstar Kyle West (Josh Henderson). Still smarting from an image-tarnishing breakup, Kyle is looking for a new leading lady for a series of potential summer blockbusters, but he's also looking for a new leading lady in life and he's intrigued by Megan. Kyle's best friend, mentor and svengali Terrence Anderson (Michael Vartan), leader of the Institute of the Higher Mind, worries that Megan may have ulterior motives or may distract his moneymaker, so paperwork is drawn up and Megan is given an offer that many sane people might refuse.

E!'s role in the Hollywood celebrity assembly line has always been multi-tiered, on one hand reinforcing the fairy tale of red-carpet glamor, portmanteau celebrity couplings and impossibly adorable offspring, but also presenting affairs and breakups and public fracases as the gravest of real news. The Arrangement is carefully engineered to be on-brand for both of the network's perspectives.

Opening episodes pitch the fantasy of Megan's magical shot at stardom and the chance that an actor with six-pack abs and a killer smile might pick you out of obscurity for a movie and his heart. There are parties and fittings for impossibly tailored gowns and expensive jewelry. There are film festivals and romantic getaways. But behind that killer smile lurks darkness, and as we've learned from that relationship that's entirely unrelated to The Arrangement, even the excitement of jumping up and down on a couch in love can be menacing if eyed with distrust.

Kyle is, let's keep emphasizing this, not Tom Cruise, but Henderson is good-looking in a comparably outsized way, possessing a kind of handsomeness that's easy to distrust. When TV shows cast movie stars, they tend to make those matinee idols the most cardboard of cutouts and Henderson is more plausibly starry than most. He really is charismatic and, as viewers of TNT's Dallas remake know, he's got a streak of bad-boy wickedness that he plays well. I'm not sure that The Arrangement reflects Hollywood 2017, in which movie stars are perhaps as unimportant as they've ever been and aren't so often 35-year-old pretty boys, but Henderson probably could have had a big film career in the 1980s, as a contemporary of a certain Tom Cruise.

And Evangelista is believable as well. One of the biggest challenges of a show like this comes when the aspiring actress auditions and you're supposed to believe that she's displaying enough star power to turn heads and usually you don't — Bella Thorne's upcoming Freeform series Famous in Love has a nearly identical premise delivered less convincingly — but Evangelista's allegedly revelatory audition plays well. Like Henderson, I don't know if she looks like a movie star, but she looks like enough TV stars — Nina Dobrev, Peyton List and Italia Ricci are all facial recognition comparables — that no credulity is strained as the paparazzi aggressively snap Megan's photo. Evangelista is unselfconscious as E! pushes its network boundaries of obscured nudity, and when she has to treat Megan as an "Aw, shucks" in-over-her-head normal girl, that doesn't seem absurd either. She couldn't really live next door to you, but she's just girl-next-door enough, a bit like a certain Katie Holmes.

The two stars have some chemistry and there's a dorky affection between the characters that goes a little deeper than "Pretty people like to have sex with pretty people."

Vartan's preppy good looks and weary intensity definitely don't call to mind Scientology chairman David Miscavige, unless you're familiar with Miscavige, in which case they totally do. If Vartan's performance is not as malevolently charismatic as one might hope for, he's hampered by The Arrangement's treatment of the Institute of the Higher Mind as a mantra-spewing self-help collective rather than anything nearly as threatening as documentaries and A&E shows have suggested Scientology to be. Put a less kind way, Vartan is boring because the way The Arrangement handles the Institute is boring and although I fully assume that things will get more twisted in subsequent episodes, that's not the trending direction. If you're drawing audiences in with sensationalism, you really can't let up and The Arrangement lets up too early.

The best of the supporting performances are the ones that bring a little edge to The Arrangement. As Megan's extremely pregnant agent, Autumn Reeser has the sort of acid-tongued character she always does well with. Lexa Doig plays the business-minded wife of Vartan's character and she's more consistently interesting than her on-screen spouse. In contrast, Megan has a pair of civilian friends who keep popping up, but couldn't be duller.

While not the most voracious consumer of celebrity gossip, I'm not immune to curiosity about the Cruise-Holmes union, or at least a union that's a lot like that union, but totally isn't. For a couple episodes that curiosity was piqued by The Arrangement, which goes further than I might have expected on its likeable stars and "I watch E! News every day" awareness of the entertainment industry. Posters for Kyle's movies hint at an almost The Player-esque satirical version of The Arrangement that I probably would have preferred, but I don't hate the earnest love story version either. If The Arrangement isn't going to be bound by telling audiences the truth about a real couple that captivated us, then it ought to have the leeway to be more outlandish and thrilling than the actuality. I don't know whether I wanted The Arrangement to be realer or trashier or funnier, but it needed to be something more.

Network: E!

Cast: Christine Evangelista, Josh Henderson, Michael Vartan, Lexa Doig, Autumn Reeser

Creator: Jonathan Abrahams

Airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on E!.