Stardom is a palimpsest, and every celebrity a history. Each time we think about an A-lister, we recall all their roles, rumors, scandals, interviews, and magazine shoots — and how those made us feel. That ocean of subtext is what made TomKat — the now-five-years-defunct marriage between Tom Cruise and Katie “Kate” Holmes — such a tabloid sensation. TomKat was sold as a fairy tale: a Cinderella story about an out-of-work TV actress finding love (and fame and financial security) with her movie-star Prince Charming. But in the most lurid telling of the relationship, their romance became a different fairy tale, with the Church of Scientology transforming into Bluebeard’s Castle, replete with alleged horrors like silent births and slave labor.
The Arrangement, E!’s new drama about a contract marriage between two actors seemingly based on TomKat (though the creator denies it), either doesn’t know or doesn’t care that it’s subtext that makes a star. Frustratingly superficial, the series plays the central couple’s relationship straight, at least in the first three episodes. There’s none of the destabilizing weirdness that made Cruise and Holmes’s nuptials such a gift to gossip. Franchise hero Kyle West (Josh Henderson) is too much of a spoiled dud to jump on a couch and declare his love for his new girlfriend Megan (Christine Evangelista) — his soft, indolent brain could never conjure up something that passionate. Even TomKat’s age difference, which suggested the middle-aged divorcé’s search for docile domesticity, falls victim to The Arrangement’s bland-ification process. We can only imagine how much more uneasy, and therefore compelling, the show might have been if Henderson had traded roles with the graying but still sharply handsome Michael Vartan, who plays Kyle’s “life adviser” and best friend. The Cruise-related details the show does borrow from real life are as dull as People magazine: a famous ex, the all-black outfits, the motorcycle hobby. So he likes loud bikes. Whoop-de-fucking-do. So does your racist uncle.
Even in this era of increasingly sophisticated storytelling on TV, the medium is still bound to a set of narrative conventions. Likability, especially female likability, remains at the top of the list of script staples for most series — and that’s the other reason why The Arrangement is as basic as a beige dress on the red carpet. The show bends over backward to make Megan fall for Kyle: A grateful father notes that the millionaire actor paid for his kid’s college education and, more wincingly, the celeb rescues his new girlfriend from an attempted rape. Megan could’ve agreed to marry Kyle two days after their first meeting as an ambitious calculation or a cautious adventure. Instead, she has to be drably accessible.
Sometimes Evangelista makes the aw-shucks sweetness work. After Megan’s first night with Kyle, she’s caught naked the morning after by a stranger in his home — the kind of seen-it-all assistant who doesn’t bat an eye. Trying to match his blaséness, she strides up to him to shake his hand, naked as a deer, then adorably mutters that she thought she could pull that off but she just can’t as she scurries for a towel. (Perhaps that lack of commitment is why Megan’s career is stalled at the start of the show.) Evangelista has the most charisma in the cast, which includes Lexa Doig as Deann, who runs the cultish Institute of the Higher Mind with her husband (Vartan) and, as Kyle’s producing partner, gets a say in every project he stars in. Deann might be hatching a feminist revenge of her own, and the writers finally get to say something interesting when a stylist informs Megan that she won’t be allowed to wear anything fashion-forward at a glitzy film festival — nothing that’d indicate that she’s anything more than eye candy. But for now, we’re mostly forced to sit through Megan’s white-girl raps about Shakespeare.
It’s implied that a dark cloud hangs over Megan’s past, and there’s certainly something a bit queasy about a wealthy recluse who sends a woman he’s just met a stack of contracts to regiment their new relationship. (The Christian Grey parallels, probably inadvertent, are legion and off-putting.) But The Arrangement entirely misses the point of why we get obsessed with some celebrity matches, even when we can freely admit that we really know nothing about the famous people involved. It’s the joy of deduction: piecing together a story that makes sense to us from a messy collision of colorful images and often contradictory connotations. There’s no fun in just being given the answer.