Real life is all too often crazier than fiction. Such is the problem with E!’s splashy, ultimately trolling new drama series The Arrangement.
The series, which premieres Sunday, is about Kyle West (Josh Henderson), a major blockbuster movie star who happens to be the celebrity face of a Hollywood-based organization called the Institute of the Higher Mind, which through counseling sessions purports to help its members achieve self-actualization.
More accurately, it is about struggling actress Megan Morrison (Christine Evangelista), who auditions for a film starring Kyle only to discover that the tape was actually being vetted by high-level members of the Institute. Impressed with her performance, she ends up being offered a contract marriage.
It all should sound familiar, right?
Shocking, you might think, that E!, which relies so deeply on maintaining positive relationships with stars of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes’s stature, would make a soapy drama series based on the rumors that their marriage was a contract agreement allegedly orchestrated by the Church of Scientology.
Shocking, except that, while certainly happy to entertain any eyeballs drawn to the series titillated by this juicy, scandalous concept, the show’s producers and all its stars have completely pussyfooted around any and all comparisons to Cruise’s story or the church completely.
“You can see the comparisons considering that Tom’s an actor, Kyle West is an actor, they’re both huge film stars, and it’s set in Hollywood,” Henderson told members of the press. “But at the end of the day, we’re really telling our own unique story.”
Evangelista echoed the sentiment: “It’s natural for people to compare. But very soon, early on, you see that these people have their own history, their own relationship, and we’re not deriving it from any actual people.”
Jonathan Abrahams, who created and is executive producer of The Arrangement, goes even further to argue, somewhat implausibly, that no comparisons should be made between Scientology and the show’s fictional Institute of Higher Learning.
Unlike Scientology, the Institute is not a religion, he told TV reporters this winter at the TCA press tour.
Plus, he said, there are lots of self-help organizations in Hollywood to draw inspiration from. And don’t read into a connection between the show’s marriage contract and the gossipmongering that had to do with Tom Cruise: Rumors about contract marriages, for one purpose or another, have permeated Hollywood for decades.
“I’ve heard of contract marriages going back to the days of the early talkies,” Abrahams said.
But here’s the kicker: While standing by his assertion that the show is not about Scientology, Abrahams also admitted that he legally would not be able to say so if it was.
“It’s clear to me that even if I could say that, that I could legally do it, I don’t have the authority to say that,” he said. “It doesn’t really matter because it really isn’t.”
After watching the first handful of episodes of The Arrangement, we can say that this is all ridiculous. Sure, we understand distancing yourself to a point—the church is famously litigious.
Obviously the series is not a ripped-from-the-headlines, moment-for-moment depiction of Tom Cruise’s personal life. It’s a fictional television series, and one that’s not produced by Ryan Murphy, which means there’s going to be a healthy removal from reality.
But the connections between its plot and the stories about Cruise and Scientology that we know all too well are so strong that to deny that it’s loosely based on them isn’t just tip-toeing around the parallels. It’s delusion.
In fact, it’s not just the rumors about Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes that ring the most familiar in The Arrangement, though those seem to be what most critics are focusing on. (Admittedly, there are a few undeniable parallels, like the fact that Kyle and Megan’s relationship becomes public after their agreement during a trip to Italy, which is where Cruise and Holmes’s did as well.)
The story instead more closely resembles the one told in a bombshell 2012 Vanity Fair article by Maureen Orth that detailed an elaborate auditioning process that allegedly was meant to find a new girlfriend and then-wife for Tom Cruise.
According to Orth’s sources, including former Scientologist Marc Headley, who claims to have been seen the audition tapes, little-known actresses were brought in under the guise of auditioning for a training film, but were then asked a series of atypical personal questions, like: “What do you think of Tom Cruise?” This almost identically mirrors the first act of The Arrangement.
(Church representatives denied to Vanity Fair that such a search took place, dismissing Orth’s sources as disgruntled former members.)
As Orth explains, actress Nazanin Boniadi was selected through that process, and dated Cruise from November 2004 until January 2005. Their early meetings, as described in the article, were blanketed with the kinds of grand, sweeping gestures that Kyle West uses to woo Megan in E!’s series.
But when Cruise and Boniadi’s initial honeymoon period waned and it became clear that Boniadi wouldn’t be a good fit for the position, Vanity Fair reported that she moved out of the house she shared with Cruise at the time and was broken up with by church officials.
According to both Orth’s sources and in former Scientologist Leah Remini’s memoir, Troublemaker: Surviving Hollywood and Scientology (Remini claims to have been friends with Boniadi at the time), Boniadi was punished for failing the mission for which she had been recruited.
“[She was] subjected to doing four months of menial labor, including tasks such as digging ditches and cleaning public toilets with a toothbrush,” Remini wrote. “Eventually she was promoted to selling Dianetics books on the streets of Tampa.”
(A Scientology spokesperson told Vanity Fair: “The Church does not ‘punish’ people, especially in [that] manner.”)
Boniadi has since left the church, Orth reported in 2012, and has had success on series like Homeland, Scandal, and How to Get Away With Murder. Boniadi has since spoken against the church in an anti-Scientology rap song.
It was soon after her relationship with Cruise failed that the actor began dating Katie Holmes. Reports, as outlined in this New York Post piece, are that Holmes had signed a five-year contract when she married Cruise.
The Church of Scientology has not responded to our request for comment on the comparisons between the Vanity Fair article about Boniadi and E!’s series. At the time of each publishing, the organization dismissed both the magazine’s and Remini’s claims.
Like we said earlier, the series is hardly a point-by-point dramatization of the scandalous article. But it’s so close, with parallels to both lesser-known points about Boniadi’s alleged story and Holmes’s far more widely circulated one, that E! must have known it would be tantalizing us with the connections, even if they’re now denying it.
It’s all the same. As we learned after watching the show, the idea of a series that dramatizes Tom Cruise’s rumored Scientology contract marriage is far more interesting than the series itself.