In Season Two of The Arrangement, up-and-coming starlet Megan Morrison (Christine Evangelista) follows her fiancé’s ex, Lisbeth (Ashley Hinshaw), to a distinctly un-relaxing meditation class. When the pair comes face to face after the gong sounds, though, the latter, easily spooked, unleashes a very L.A. version of “Back the fuck off”: “Your energy,” she says, “is really dark and destructive.”
You wouldn’t know from the set of The Arrangement that darkness and destruction were part of the vibe, but that’s exactly the point. In E!’s sophomore drama, filmed at Vancouver’s North Shore Studios and set in the glamorous Tinseltown of the network’s celebrity news and red carpet coverage, appearances are everything. And, as we all know, appearances are deceptive, especially in the hometown of movie magic.
“Everybody [has] their own agenda, and [is] looking out for themselves in some way, or being manipulated by something,” Evangelista says, sitting on the mock-up patio of a cliff-top Malibu mansion, replete with trompe l’oeil “ocean view.” “Nothing is really what it seems to be.”
In the first season, Evangelista’s character, a struggling actress, receives the offer of a lifetime—literally: a contract marriage with Hollywood’s number one leading man, Kyle West (Josh Henderson), who also happens to be the public face of a “self-help group”/religion/cult known as The Institute for the Higher Mind. It’s unclear, exactly, what the Institute’s “faith” entails, beyond countless self-analytical seminars and the usual jargon. What is clear, from the start, is that the Institute’s enigmatic leader, Terence Anderson (Alias’ Michael Vartan), and his wife, Deann (Lexa Doig), orchestrate Kyle’s life and career, down to the most minute details. (“Big smiles, very in love, very romantic,” Deann coaches the couple in the Season Two premiere, as the celebrity wedding publicity mill whirs into action. “The headline is, ‘Hollywood’s It Couple Having the Time of Their Lives.’”)
Though E! Network, creator Jonathan Abrahams, and the members of the cast are careful disclaim any specific connection to Scientology, no one who’s picked up a copy of Us Weekly in the last 15 years will fail to be reminded of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes. (The second season, which picks up after Megan vows to “burn the whole thing down,” is reminiscent of Leah Remini’s campaign to expose the “church” in A&E’s Scientology and Its Aftermath.) As Evangelista suggests, part the appeal of The Arrangement—as with films and TV series such as The Master, The Invitation, and The Path—is its attempt to pull back the curtain on institutions that tend to shy away from probing eyes.
“Why would you give all of your money away?” she says. “Why would you not talk to your family? Why would you isolate yourself? What are you searching for?”
For Vartan, by contrast, Season Two is most compelling for the adversarial relationship between Terence and Megan, and what the characters learn about themselves through their tense interactions.
“Their relationship becomes a lot closer in many, many ways—sometimes perverted and disturbing ways,” he says. “There’s always a subplot. There’s always an angle. Their relationship is very complicated. Obviously, she wants something from him, which is destruction, and I want something from her, which is, ‘Please, please, be under control.’”
“We like to get away from the archetypes,” Abrahams adds. “We know that [Terence] is the bad guy and [Megan] is the good girl, but where are the gray areas between all that? We’ve had a chance this season to go there and explore that more. There are people in the mix who may not be exactly who we think they are.”
The Arrangement’s hiding-in-plain-sight aspect is in its bones: One of its strongest features is its detailed recreation of what Vartan calls “the Hollywood backdrop,” from the press scrums at film premieres to highly choreographed photo shoots—the alluring surface that hides the ugly truth, at least in the series’ version of it. This willingness to play with the real and the unreal extends to the series’ physical texture, too. Production designer Daniel Novotny’s plans for Kyle’s Malibu beach house included a forced-perspective photograph printed on a curtain to mimic an ocean vista on a small soundstage, and a stone staircase to nowhere to create a “wow factor” on the budget. The same goes for costume designer Mandi Line, who draws inspiration from real-life fashion plates: for Terence, Liev Schreiber; for Kyle, Justin Theroux (“the dopest dresser out there”); for Megan, Olivia Palermo and Dakota Johnson; and for Deann, Line herself (“if I was a producer.”)
In this, the second of E!’s original scripted series (following The Royals) may say more about the illusions of film and television than it does those of “self-help groups,” but it nonetheless captures a milieu in which promises of salvation—if you attract enough fans, earn enough money, meet the right people follow the right diet—are as seductive, and as fleeting, as the golden hour. As Lisbeth says in the second episode, sipping blood-purifying tea and tapping her finger nervously on the mug, “The world is extremely toxic.” Maybe most of all when it seems too beautiful to believe.
Season Two of The Arrangement premieres Sunday, March 11 at 9 p.m. on E!