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A New Kind of Cult TV Show

Two series take opposite approaches to dramatizing fringe religions

(Hulu/E Network/Ringer illustration)
(Hulu/E Network/Ringer illustration)

In recent years, the most influential portrayals of Scientology have all been nonfictional works in which storytellers and sources take on varying levels of risk to peel back the layers surrounding L. Ron Hubbard’s faith and the institution that’s built up around it. Most famously, there’s the work of Lawrence Wright, which started as a New Yorker profile of Scientology’s most high-profile defector, then expanded into his book Going Clear and the Alex Gibney documentary of the same name. Most recently, there was Louis Theroux’s My Scientology Movie and Leah Remini’s Scientology and the Aftermath. (Even South Park’s infamous 2005 spoof is proudly subtitled “THIS IS WHAT SCIENTOLOGISTS ACTUALLY BELIEVE.”) The subtext throughout is that the truth is far stranger than fiction, and perhaps too grave to be fictionalized at all.

When Scientology has been fictionalized, it’s usually hidden under a thick layer of plausible deniability. (Don’t ask Paul Thomas Anderson whether The Master is about Scientology.) For legal and creative-license reasons, creators and audience alike persist in the polite fiction that what we’re watching has nothing to do with the Church of Scientology, the only fringe faith with the staying power, reach, and cultural influence to inspire this many exposés, movies, books, and now, television shows. The Path, Hulu’s somber hour-long drama quietly cruising to the end of its second season, commits so fully to ambiguity that it can have difficulty choosing between fact and fiction, sacrificing clarity for reduced liability. But The Arrangement, a new shamelessly soapy drama on E!, wrings out as much ripped-from-the-headlines titillation as possible while staying on the right side of the defamation line. Because it treats its disclaimer as a waiver, not a burden, The Arrangement can have all the frivolity its real-life inspiration doesn’t, delving into the glitz and mystery that are part of Scientology’s appeal without having to make any caveats. Held up against the relative seriousness of The Path, The Arrangement offers a fizzier angle on the (literal) cult show — and suggests that the fringe-religion narrative could benefit from a lighter touch.

Created by playwright Jessica Goldberg and executive produced by Parenthood’s Jason Katims, The Path takes more pains than it needs to in order to distinguish its fictional Meyerist Movement from Scientology, a strategy that works to the series’ detriment (more on that in a moment). There’s a charismatic founder — named, hilariously, Steve — and an audit-esque confessional rite that leaves the church with ample blackmail material. But Meyerism is also a gentler and less power-hungry religion than Scientology has been made out to be. Its members resist an ambitious expansion and PR initiative pushed by new leader Cal (Hugh Dancy), and practitioners are militant vegetarians who wear paisley and live farm-to-table lives in the Hudson Valley, a far cry from the more cosmopolitan, science-fiction overtones of Scientology.

In the end, though, all those careful distinctions just muddy The Path’s worldview. The series began by focusing on a marital split between true believer Sarah (Michelle Monaghan) and burgeoning skeptic Eddie (Aaron Paul), who came to Meyerism in a time of need. The first season raised some interesting questions — does it matter if you buy into the text of your religion as long as you believe in the good work it does? — and the second season seemed poised to explore Eddie’s readjustment to life on the outside. But The Path threw in a massive wrinkle: Since the first-season finale, the show has kept up a steady drip of hints that Eddie has bona fide supernatural abilities, making Meyerism’s more outré teachings real and Eddie himself a kind of Chosen One, the real leader of Meyerism.

All that hand-wringing about the comforting salve of faith versus the harsh-yet-clarifying light of truth is now moot; any commentary on real-life analogs has evaporated. The Path is sincere in its exploration of religion, community, and the alternating ways in which those forces can free and imprison us. In fact, the sincerity is so apparent it overwhelms the show, denying the baser pleasures of its premise. Our interest in Scientology and stories inspired by it is inherently voyeuristic. It can’t hurt to indulge that instinct a little.

The Arrangement doesn’t have that problem. Unlike The Path, Jonathan Abrahams’s drama never presents itself as particularly probing. As befits its network, The Arrangement focuses on the more salacious side of a religion that has its own dedicated Celebrity Center. The show follows struggling actress Megan Morrison (Christine Evangelista) as she enters a contractual relationship with blatant Cruise surrogate Kyle West (Josh Henderson). In some ways, it’s as incurious as its protagonist about the implications of its namesake deal or the people who present it — a married couple who run the so-called Institute of the Higher Mind. Everything here is pure Hollywood surface. That’s a good thing.

We’re made to believe that the connection between Kyle and Megan is genuine, but it’s never clear how Kyle feels about polluting his brand-new relationship with money and outside control. (Enthusiastic? Ambivalent? Ignorant?) Four episodes in, the happy couple has barely discussed the arrangement and how it shifts the power dynamics between them; there’s not so much as a Fifty Shades–style negotiation before Megan dives in headfirst. Similarly, The Arrangement declines to fill in the details of what, exactly, IHM preaches. IHM superior Terence (Michael Vartan) teaches workshops with titles such as “Demystifying Happiness” and drops aphorism-shaped mumbo jumbo like “Past experience is a barrier between us and our inner selves.” It’s still not clear if any of it adds up to an actual philosophy; it’s not much zanier than what you’d hear at an entry-level yoga studio/crystal emporium (this is Los Angeles, after all). In fact, we haven’t scratched much deeper than Terence’s cult of personality and the access it affords him to various interchangeable blonde actresses.

But this vagueness is forgivable. The Arrangement wears its shallowness on the sleeve of its shiniest going-out top. The credits sequence is a montage of flashbulbs and headlines; incredibly, the network does product placement for itself in the show, deploying actual E! hosts to break fictional news. This show is both enraptured by and complicit in the Hollywood glamour complex, and it knows it. Consider it a free pass to ogle at the designer duds and spontaneous trips to Mexico as much as Megan does. The Path, meanwhile, boasts prestige aspirations and prestige runtimes — episodes frequently run upward of 50 minutes, and the episode order crept up from 10 to 13 between seasons. Because the show holds itself to a loftier standard than popcorn, we do the same.

Where The Path strains for insight, though, The Arrangement yields it with ease. This is the other advantage of that conspicuous glossing over of specifics and details: It’s not an oversight, it’s a direct reflection of The Arrangement’s themes. Megan is too swept away by romance and access to ask important questions, and so is her story. In a memorable exchange, she asks her friends in mock distress, “They just know me as Kyle West’s girlfriend. What if that’s … all that I am?” The whole group immediately bursts out laughing. Who cares? They’re on their way to a fancy party! Why should Megan look a gift horse in the mouth, especially one this sexy? As for Terence, the content of his message doesn’t matter nearly as much as the influence he gains through it. Real Scientology, like almost all religions, sounds outlandish on paper — that hasn’t prevented the church from becoming a global force. If Hubbard could build his following on aliens, Terence can build his on knockoff Zen.

The Arrangement fits all this alongside conspicuous consumption and Hollywood dealmaking, while The Path is neither as salacious nor profound as it wants to be. After years of journalists and filmmakers treating Scientology with the delicacy it deserves in nonfiction, The Arrangement refreshingly takes advantage of the silliness and ease the cover of fiction can afford. The Arrangement works because it isn’t based on a true story, anyway — just our perception of one. And when it comes to fictionalizing the fringe, getting stranger — and sillier — makes for a stronger tale.