Real or fictional love story?

In The Arrangement, a contract comes before marriage for actors Kyle West (Josh Henderson) and Megan Morrison (Christine Evangelista).
In The Arrangement, a contract comes before marriage for actors Kyle West (Josh Henderson) and Megan Morrison (Christine Evangelista).PHOTO: E! ENTERTAINMENT

Creators of The Arrangement insist that the show is not about Tom Cruise's marriage to Katie Holmes or the Church of Scientology

The series The Arrangement bears obvious similarities to the rumoured relationship between actor Tom Cruise and the Church of Scientology. It is about an aspiring actress who has to sign a marriage contract before she can date one of Hollywood's biggest stars, a man who belongs to a cult-like self-help organisation.

But while speaking to The Straits Times and other press, its creators swear, unconvincingly, that the show is not about Cruise or Scientology.

"It really isn't," executive producer Jonathan Abrahams smilingly tells a gathering of television critics in Los Angeles earlier this year.

Then again, you would expect the makers of the series to deny any similarities to avoid being sued and Abrahams' reply when asked if he could legally confirm it is telling.

"Even if I could legally do it, I don't have the authority to do it," he says, and when asked yet another question on the subject, jokes that he is "going to plead the fifth", a reference to the American Constitution's provision against self-incrimination.

This prompts laughs from the cast and creators as well as the press, but Abrahams insists that "it doesn't matter because it really isn't" about Cruise and Scientology, pointing out that contract marriages are part of Hollywood lore.

"I have heard of contract marriages going back to the days of the early talkies. There is a lot of fodder to inspire this kind of thing," says the writer and producer, who won a writing Emmy for his work on the fourth season of period drama Mad Men (2007-2015).

"One of our writers on the show has been in the industry since the early 1970s and when you sit around in a room with people for eight hours a day, the amount of true-life stories, rumours and urban legends that get tossed around... you couldn't fit it all into a season."

The show "is really about how do you normalise this sort of ludicrous arrangement", he explains.

"The idea seems so crazy, but it happens, so how do free-thinking, intelligent people make decisions like this and what are the ramifications, what are their lives like after they make these decisions."

Still, the show's storyline holds blatant parallels with the specifics of Scientology's alleged meddling in Cruise's love life.

Airing on Mondays at 8pm on Diva (Singtel TV Channel 303 and StarHub TV Channel 513), it revolves around the budding romance between movie heart-throb Kyle West (Josh Henderson) and struggling actress Megan Morrison (Christine Evangelista).

A few days after meeting Kyle, Megan is pressured to sign a contract where she promises, in exchange for US$10 million, to become the perfect girlfriend and, eventually, wife to Kyle, and to never speak to the press without his approval.

He says he needs the contract so he can manage his "brand" image after his former fiancee humiliated him by leaving him at the altar.

The contract, and Kyle and Megan's romance, happens at the instigation of Kyle's best friend Terrence, the leader of a fictional cult-like self-help group called the Institute of the Higher Mind, where followers are warned about "regressive" people and "false externals" standing in their way.

Terrence seems to be modelled after Mr David Miscavige, Cruise's best man at his 2006 wedding to his ex-wife Katie Holmes - whom he married a mere two months after meeting - and the leader of the controversial Church of Scientology, where believers are told to stay away from "suppressive persons".

Going Clear, the acclaimed 2013 book and 2015 documentary about the group, alleges that when Cruise wanted to date after his 2001 divorce from actress Nicole Kidman, the church arranged for him to meet young women it thought was suitable and pressured at least one of them, Homeland actress Nazanin Boniadi, to sign a non-disclosure agreement.

But E!, the network that airs the show in the United States, has issued a statement saying "the character of Kyle West is not at all inspired by anyone in particular".

And Abrahams insists the show draws from other self-help groups popular in Hollywood, including the Landmark Forum and various 12-step programmes for recovering alcoholics.

"All of these have something in common and it's this idea that the shackles of your past can be broken if you follow the system, if you follow a structure about how to live your life and you can shape a future that is not informed necessarily by the trauma or the bad experiences you've had," he says.

"There's a real promise to it: Join our thing, do our programme, spend X amount of dollars for the weekend intensive and you can change your life."

•The Arrangement is shown on Mondays at 8pm on Diva (Singtel TV Channel 303 and StarHub TV Channel 513).

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 13, 2017, with the headline 'Real or fictional love story?'. Print Edition | Subscribe