With the premiere of Alcatraz under its belt, FOX can now ready its second highly anticipated midseason premiere with Touch, starring Kiefer Sutherland. Given the idea comes from Heroes creator Tim Kring, and also counts Lethal Weapon star Danny Glover among its cast, there is a considerable amount of anticipation and curiosity surrounding this new program.
The pilot, written by Kring and directed by Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend, Constantine) is a kind of metaphysical exploration of what connects us not only to each other, but also to the world at large. And in order for Kring to make the statements, and deliver the kind of message Touch is intended to carry, he has chosen to expand the dynamic of the program to a global scale. While also keeping the central story elements confined to a small group of characters who may unwittingly be in the company of a young boy capable of unlocking the mysteries of chance and fate that determine so much of the population's daily lives.
Sutherland stars as Martin Bohm, an overworked, single father struggling to understand his son Jake (David Mazouz), a special child whose gifts and abilities have led him to be possibly misdiagnosed as autistic, when he may actually be far beyond the comprehension of modern science. Jake is special because he is somehow able to access the unseen layers of the world that surround all of us. But, for whatever reason, the boy is either unable, or unwilling to make use of it himself – so it is up to Martin to make sense of that which Jake sees and take action where his son is unable.
As the episode begins, we are introduced to Jake via voiceover (since that's arguably the only way we'll ever hear him speak), where he acts as both narrator and omniscient observer who has tasked himself with the responsibility of protecting those lacking his foresight – the catch is that Jake's "protection" comes in the most cryptic way possible.
Because Kring has chosen to give Jake voice in the opening and closing segments of Touch, and because Dr. Dewitt (Danny Glover) insinuates that Jake is not actually autistic, but has evolved beyond the need to communicate verbally, there is an odd disconnect with his character wherein the boy simply becomes a bit of recalcitrant software ready to revolutionize the world, but lacks any sort of backwards compatibility to make it useful.
The initial hook of Touch is that Martin is dangerously close to losing Jake to the governmental powers that be, not because he's a bad father, but because his son is constantly running off to climb a cell tower at 3:18 every afternoon. It's oddly reminiscent of the water tower scene in What's Eating Gilbert Grape, except that Jake is not a good-natured boy that simply lacks the capacity to understand the danger of the situation; he's positioned by Kring to know exactly what he's doing, because he knows more than anyone else in the show.
Yet, despite Jake's incredible abilities, and his father's clear devotion to him, social services representative Clea Hopkins (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Undercovers, Larry Crowne), still insists that the boy be cared for by the state.
If this set up makes it sound as though Touch is exceedingly maudlin, it's because it is – a fact Kring readily admits to when discussing the program. However, the question then becomes: how much sentimentality can be layered into a single episode before it becomes too much?
The pilot begins sowing the seeds of connection at its most tenuous point: a chance telephone conversation between Martin and a British man looking to reclaim the very phone Martin is using during their conversation. Given the urgency in his voice, and his need to recover a photo of a girl on the phone leads the viewer to immediately think this guy is a creep – though we soon learn that our sympathies should be with him, not our doubt.
From there, the connections are spread across the planet. We are taken from New York, to Ireland, to the Middle East and back to New York - all with little idea of how things will come together. Although the show's ambition is clear, the mode of connection struggles to make sense in the real world.
An Irish singing hopeful, a father in mourning and an oven-seeking youth are brought together by one of the clumsiest plot devices in recent memory. Apparently, videos do not get uploaded to the Internet via YouTube, or some other content aggregator, but are shared with millions of people by sending the actual phone from one corner of the globe to another. And that is the first of many frustratingly convenient storytelling techniques utilized in Touch to get from point A to point B. It doesn’t really matter if any of it makes sense, as long as the end result feels really good.
If we forget the near-impossibility that the phone(s) end up in the hands of non-apathetic people or those who actually get the gist of paying a phone forward, the notion is, of course, to introduce the audience to this week's character with whom we will be asked to share an emotional connection.
While part of the attraction to Touch will certainly be how the ancillary characters connect back to Jake and Martin week after week, the real test will be whether or not the show's creators can refrain from turning up the volume on the schmaltz to the point that it becomes kitsch – as it was near the end of the pilot episode. How much sympathy is expected for a young man that is talked out of committing mass murder because a stranger might be able to supply him with a new oven?
Thankfully, Sutherland's performance is strong, and is the true core of the episode. Martin's desire to share some kind of moment and connection with Jake is palpable enough to keep even the most hard-hearted individual interested. It's hard not to respond when Sutherland springs to action based solely on the faith he has in his child. Since fans have gotten used to seeing the actor scramble against the clock to save the day in 24, it won't take too much to imagine this new role will attract a similar kind of audience.
As the series progresses, hopefully Glover's Dr. Dewitt will develop into something more than just a decoder ring for Jake's confusing behavior. Presently, his appearance in the pilot was little more than a cameo that, like Jake, served only to progress the plot and offered little in the way of a tangible character for Sutherland to interact with.
Touch (the pilot, anyway) is undeniably well made from a technical standpoint - a fact likely owing to Lawrence's experience on films. Whether that level of polish will stay when the series goes weekly, remains to be seen. Beyond the sheen, however, the series asks a lot of its audience in the way of suspension of disbelief and suspension of excessive eye rolling. Some will certainly feel played upon by the incessant tear jerking, and tune out, but it's a good bet many will find the show to be an appealing alternative to the less hopeful programs airing elsewhere.
Added to the fact that Sutherland and Glover are household names, the series is likely going to develop into a safe-haven for feel-good storytelling, a combination that will likely turn Touch into a hit for FOX.
Touch officially begins Monday, March 19 on FOX.