In the new FOX drama "Touch," Kiefer Sutherland plays a single dad whose son Jake — diagnosed for much of his life as severely autistic — is revealed to have a special, near-superhuman ability to identify and manipulate the patterns in the universe that appear to most of us to be a series of isolated, random events.
And if I were to look at the premiere episode of "Touch" the way everyone other than Jake views the world — and the way that FOX is treating it, by airing it after "American Idol" tomorrow night at 9, separated by almost two months from when the rest of the series will air on Mondays at 9 starting March 19 — then it's an interesting, emotionally manipulative but still effective hour of television.
But my job asks me to look at TV shows the way Jake looks at everything. There are almost always patterns and connections to spot, whether how some piece of a pilot episode may be tough to duplicate week after week, or how one writer may repeat the same tricks over and over from show to show.
And in that case, knowing what I know about "Touch" creator Tim Kring — and seeing the many commonalities between this show and his work on NBC's "Heroes" — makes me much less optimistic about the new series' future than I might be if I couldn't recognize the order lurking within the chaos.
"Touch," like "Heroes," gets off to a memorable start, tying together a group of seemingly disparate stories from around the globe — an Iraqi teen whose father's bakery desperately needs a new oven to survive, a UK call center employee who dreams of pop stardom, a melancholy businessman on his way to Tokyo — with a bit of voiceover narration by Jake (David Mazouz
) explaining that "Things that most people see as chaos actually follow subtle laws of behavior." Like the similar opening voiceover from the "Heroes" pilot ("What is the soul? Why do we dream?"), it's pretentious as all get out, but at least speaks to an ambition that's rare in a network TV drama these days.
Jake is cared for by his father Martin (Sutherland), a 9/11 widower who has never believed his son to be autistic(*), yet who despairs at never getting to hear his son speak (you only hear Mazouz's voice in the narration) or to hug him or touch him in any way without triggering a violent outburst. But just as social worker Clea (Gugu Mbatha-Raw
) starts to push for Jake to be moved to a round-the-clock facility, Martin starts to recognize the patterns in Jake's obsessive scribbling and playing with discarded cell phones, which has repercussions with those far-away characters and also with a surly lottery winner (Titus Welliver) who is more closely tied to Martin than either man realizes.
(*) Given the autism epidemic in this country, it's this part of the show that has the most potential to cause problems. While Kring tries to make it clear that Jake has been misdiagnosed, the show still trades off of assumptions about autism and the "Rain Man"-like notion that the condition can also grant those afflicted with it with seemingly magical powers as a form of compensation. It's uncomfortable at a minimum.
There's a complicated but easy to follow plot logic to "Touch," in which the world is presented as an elaborate Rube Goldberg device that can make amazing things happen if you line up the components exactly right. In the pilot, the pieces all fit together and are aided by strong performances by Sutherland(**) and guest stars Welliver and Danny Glover (as an eccentric scientist who claims to understand the true nature of Jake's condition). It's shameless in its various tugs at the heartstrings, but it successfully tugs at them even as you can see it doing that.
(**) It would be easy to say that Martin is a 180-degree turn from Jack Bauer, but there's a moment in this pilot where Martin is faced with a ticking-clock scenario, and Sutherland's voice rises in intensity, and I half-expected him to shoot somebody in the leg and demand to know where the bomb is. I'm not complaining, mind you — Sutherland's good at this, after all — just noting that even though he's playing an average guy who doesn't carry a gun, some echoes of his most iconic role still come through.
But there seems to be such a high degree of difficulty to making this contraption work week after week. And with a very similar show in "Heroes," Kring already demonstrated that he's much better at beginnings than at middles or endings. Maybe he'll prove me wrong when additional episodes start airing in late March, but maybe I'll be better off looking at tonight's episode as an individual event not tied to any of the mosaic Kring will attempt to build later.