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TV Tonight: Touch

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If, as the new Fox drama Touch suggests, we are all connected and all our actions affect everyone else, then maybe I should take some tiny responsibility and/or blame for the show. I’m always complaining on this blog that networks, especially broadcasters, should take more risks. And one thing I will say for Touch, previewing tonight on Fox and regularly debuting in March: it is not a formula TV drama. At least unless “man discovers his maybe-autistic son has mystic insights into cosmic patterns affecting the lives of people around the world” is a formula I’m not aware of. Perhaps, like butterflies flapping their wings in the Amazon, I and other critics and TV watchers contributed to a cosmic chain of events?

So the part of me who wants networks to branch out from cop, lawyer and doctor dramas wants to praise Touch for trying something different. But the part of me who actually watched the pilot has to recognize that it is at least 50% hoo-hah.

I say that Touch’s premise is different, as a TV-drama concept; that’s not to say it is something totally new under the sun. The general idea—that far-flung characters are somehow cosmically connected—is a theme we’ve seen in movies like Crash and Babel and Pay It Forward, TV shows like Lost, various world religions and philosophies, Jungian psychology,  and also the 1983 Police album Synchronicity. It was also a distinct theme of the NBC superhero drama Heroes, whose creator Tim Kring is behind Touch, which, in a way, is basically Heroes with the superpowers replaced by math.

The show opens with Jake Bohm (David Mazouz), an enigmatic 11-year-old boy, giving us a monologue—not unlike some of the ones Dr. Suresh used to unload in Heroes—about universal mathematical patterns, which the gifted Jake can see innately. “Things most people see as chaos actually follow subtle patterns of behavior: galaxies, plants, seashells. These patterns can never lie.” Jake intuits all this and, as we learn, can essentially see the future by deciphering complex chains of events; but he tells no one because, monologues notwithstanding, he has never spoken.

Jake’s father Martin (Kiefer Sutherland) is a widower whose wife died in the World Trade Center on 9/11 and who has had trouble caring for his mute son ever since: not only does Jake not speak, he will not be touched—irony check—and has a thing for climbing cell phone towers. Jake’s symptoms seem like autism, and indeed, when Fox announced the show at upfronts in May (before the pilot was shot), its description said Jake was autistic. Now the pilot suggests that Jake actually is misdiagnosed and instead may represent a kind of evolutionary step in human consciousness—which may have been the plan all along, but it at least feels like a way of doing “Touched By a Magical Autistic Kid” without having to directly say it (and perhaps offend the parents of real-world autistic children).

Evolutionary consciousness or not, when we meet Martin, he’s at the end of his rope and in danger of losing his son because Jake’s behavior is increasingly out of control. Unfortunately, in the early going, Martin’s conflict manifests itself in ways that make it impossible to forget you’re watching 24′s Jack Bauer: he screams at people into cell phones, finds himself rushing against the clock, and at one point even shouts a quintessentially Jack “DAMMIT!,”albeit this time when he slams his finger in a dresser drawer. (The show even pairs him with a social worker, Clea, played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, which is a syllable too close to “Chloe.”) Over the first hour Sutherland begins to distinguish Martin and show a real tenderness in him, but it may be a few episodes before the shadow of Bauer recedes.

But at the same time, Jake’s acting out begins to show purpose: he becomes fixated on certain strings of numbers, and it becomes clear he’s trying to communicate something. That something turns out to be a chain of events linking the lives of several far-flung peripheral characters: a man buying a lottery ticket (Titus Welliver), an aspiring singer in Ireland, a traveling salesman recovering from a personal tragedy, and a young boy in Baghdad who dreams of being a comedian. Through a string of interactions involving seeming coincidence and a lot of cell-phone use—shades of 24—Martin comes to realize that his new purpose is to figure out what Jake is trying to say, and to use it to help people in desperate need.

The connections are plenty, by which I mean connections to past stories. Almost eight years after the pilot of Lost, can you really create a show so centrally premised on a mysterious string of numbers and a lottery ticket? There’s a potentially strong idea in Touch, using Jake’s quasi-supernatural ability to dramatize the quasi-supernatural real-world fact that social-media and communication technology (YouTube, cell phones, etc.) really does connect people globally in a way increasingly indistinguishable from magic.

But Touch, while it has some strong emotional moments from Sutherland, is so suffused with earnest awe that it feels less like a fresh statement and more like a new spin on a familiar line of vaguely yoga-fied Hollywood philosophy. It’s like a well-meaning movie that Haley Joel Osment should have starred in around the year 2000. (Complete with Danny Glover as a reclusive genius who has clues to the secret of Jake’s ability.) If the show felt a little more grounded in the world and in real people, it could work very well, but the cosmopolitan supporting characters are extremely thinly drawn, and given dialogue that’s even thinner. (“You’ve got a video of me on that phone singing in this lousy bar in Dublin, Ireland? And you’re going to send this phone out into the ether and people are going to find it and discover me?” the singer asks a friend. Why yes! That is exactly what is going to happen!)

All that said, Fox sent out only one episode of the show, and it still remains to be seen what it looks like as a series; with some stronger writing and deeper character work, it could build on its math-superpower idea to make something intriguing and emotional. Judging only from the pilot, it has the feel of something that should have been a movie, one that I probably wouldn’t have watched. Can it become effective serial TV? Maybe, if it can break out of its repeating patterns.

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