Screen Test

TV reviews: Is new series The Arrangement about Tom Cruise and Scientology?

TV series Transparent and The Arrangement offer two looks at love and identity

Transparent, a comedy-drama about a family whose patriarch comes out as transgender, was the show that put Amazon on the map for original programming.

After three seasons and multiple accolades - including a Golden Globe for Best TV Comedy (2014), and a Best Actor Globe (2014) and Emmy (2016) for star Jeffrey Tambor - this tender, funny and sharply observed series is still one of the best things on the small screen.

It follows the life of the Pfefferman family after Mort (Tambor) tells his wife and three adult children he identifies as a woman - a bittersweet seismic shift that the actor captures with uncommon pathos and dignity.

Creator Jill Soloway came up with the show after one of her parents came out as transgender at age 75.

Jeffrey Tambor (above) is Mort/Maura in Transparent. PHOTO: AMAZON PRIME VIDEO

The series, the third season of which debuted on Amazon Prime Video here last month, traces the ripple effects of his transition on the already-intricate web of sibling and parental bonds.

It turns out that none of the other Pfeffermans' lives is straightforward either.

As Mort becomes Maura, older daughter Sarah (Amy Landecker) sees her marriage fall apart after an impulsive affair with her ex; son Josh (Jay Duplass) struggles with his love life and murky sexual past; while shiftless youngest child Ali (Gaby Hoffmann) is still trying to grow up and figure out who she is.

These flaws are on full display as they and their mother Shelly (Judith Light) react to Maura's metamorphosis, each betraying varying degrees of bafflement, self-absorption and, ultimately, acceptance.

What makes Transparent such a standout is how skilfully each of these characters is sketched - with fine brush strokes coalescing into rich, detailed portraits and brought to life by the outstanding ensemble cast.

The writing is also a masterclass in how to combine an incisive social commentary - in this case, about gender and sexual politics - with cultural and character specificity.

The result is a family portrait of remarkable insight and intimacy, and this has been consistently maintained over three seasons, although the second takes a bit of a detour by incorporating flashbacks to persecuted trans characters in 1930s Berlin - an admirable creative risk that nonetheless feels a little didactic.

But you cannot fault the show when it comes to its bigger lesson, which is about compassion and empathy. For even as it revels in what a fraught mess love and identity can be, it eloquently shows that at the core of that tangle lies a simple truth: our common humanity.

Josh Anderson and Christine Evangelista play lovers in The Arrangement. PHOTO: E! ENTERTAINMENT

A rather more pulpy take on love is The Arrangement, a new drama about a struggling actress who finds herself being romanced by Hollywood megastar Kyle West (Josh Anderson) - then told to sign a contract before she can start publicly dating him.

The agreement will give Megan (Christine Evangelista) US$10 million, but in exchange she has to be the perfect girlfriend-slash-wife-to-be: never take drugs, never be unfaithful and never talk to the media without his approval.

He says he can see a real future for them, but is concerned that another failed high-profile romance - his last girlfriend left him at the altar - will damage his "brand" as a leading man.

Instigating this is Terrence (Michael Vartan), Kyle's best friend and the leader of a cult-like self-help organisation called The Institute of the Higher Mind.

The show's creators have denied the obvious similarities with Tom Cruise and the Church of Scientology.

But the parallels are inescapable and they give the series a delicious frisson of plausibility. The casting is spot-on too: Anderson has the right sort of blandly handsome features and vacant Stepford-esque look in his eye, while Evangelista has a girl-next-door quality reminiscent of Cruise's ex-wife Katie Holmes.

In the two episodes previewed, the series shows some teeth, getting a lot of mileage out of mocking self-help jargon and its pseudo-profundities ("It's time we got those false externals out of your way," Terrence tells a follower).

It also scores a few nice hits by sending up Hollywood, whether it is Megan's fellow actresses making passive-aggressive comments and humble-bragging at auditions, or celebrities the likes of Kyle being obsessed with fads such as carbon-free landscaping.


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Everything seems to be going swimmingly for Megan after she signs the contract. But when she and Kyle prepare to face the cameras together for the first time, he reaches over to rearrange her hair - a tiny controlling gesture that wipes the smile from her face.

This and other well-placed breadcrumbs make you want to tune in to one more episode at least.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 08, 2017, with the headline 'Finely sketched portraits'. Print Edition | Subscribe