Fox is rolling out the second episode of Touch four days after a repeat of the pilot that they aired, as a “special preview,” almost two months ago. It’s hard to tell whether this is their way of burying the show or trying to have it declared a Television Event. If I were a network executive, my plans for releasing this show would involve sticking it in the trunk of my car and driving to a sparsely populated area, in the dead of night, with a shovel, but I’d like to think that Fox believes it owes Kiefer Sutherland a bit more than that, after he spent eight seasons getting the snot kicked out of him in the service of freedom, democratic values, and high ratings on 24.
Sutherland plays Martin Bohm, a former journalist who has been reducing to working as an airport luggage handler since his wife was killed in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The only thing keeping this benumbed dude upright is his responsibility to take care of his son, Jake, an autistic mute who—please forgive me if, in my attempt to summarize this bullshit, I fail to properly describe some of it in ways that the producer would find most pleasing—is so supernaturally gifted with numbers that he can not only communicate through them, but use them to predict the future and direct other people’s destinies.
Specifically, Jake zeroes in on people who are about to get into trouble and gives his uncomprehending but game father clues that enable him to spend his time away from work racing around New York, trying to connect the dots in time to pull some stranger’s ass out of the fire. He and Jake are assisted by Clea (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a social worker who originally got involved in their lives because she was assigned to check up on Jake’s home situation and was all set to yank him out of his broken, over-stressed father’s shaky hands. By the time the pilot was over, the show had given up any claim it ever had to be described as promising, but still had some small credentials to “originality.” Fox has now taken that merit badge away from it by scheduling it on Thursday nights, thus forcing sympathetic viewers to compare it to Person Of Interest. Basically, Touch is Person Of Interest with an autistic boy in place of the super-surveillance machine, the social worker in place of Taraji P. Henson’s sympathetic but troubled cop, and Jim Caviezel with a heightened ability to maim and kill replaced by Keifer Sutherland with a psychic wound and a whole lotta love.
Of course, it was Sutherland who, on his previous show, blazed the trail that Caviezel is following now, that of the indestructible, indefatigable man of action trained by the government—the hero as guided missile. It was a role that Sutherland made his own, after a stop-and-start movie career that provided no indication whatsoever that it was the sort of thing he’d be able to excel at. It’s entirely to his credit that he doesn’t want to spend the rest of his life doing it over and over, to (inevitably) diminishing returns. Sutherland was brilliant last year in his supporting role in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, a role that, superficially, bore no resemblance at all to Jack Bauer but that, on a deeper level, gave him the chance to subvert the uncomplicatedly-heroic image that 24 left him shackled to: Sutherland played an astronomer who spent most of the movie confidently assuring the heroine that she could trust him when he told her that her premonitions of doomsday were unfounded and who, when he discovered that he was wrong, came unglued and committed suicide rather than live another minute without the comfort of his certainty.
Martin Bohm is another anti-Jack Bauer of a role. He’s a totally good man and the hero, but it’s hard to project charismatic macho super-efficiency when your character doesn’t know exactly what he’s trying to accomplish or how he’s meant to accomplish it but is instead just responding to a tug on the strings being operated by his weird, mute little boy. Sutherland plays it all expertly and self-effacingly, as if he wanted to get it across to every last person on Earth that, not only can he play a wimp, he can play a wimp and still carry his own show. I don’t know how many times an actor has to save the world before this becomes a priority of his, but Sutherland pulls it off. It’s a skillful star performance of a sort that I’m not sure anybody wants to watch. At times, he’s so hapless and sexless, he could be Gavin McLeod, International Man Of Mystery.
If tonight’s episode is any indication of the kinds of stories we can expect from this series, Martin’s adventures may not be worth even Captain Stubing’s time, let alone Murray Slaughter’s. Actually, the liveliest person on the show tonight may be a redheaded flight attendant who first literally bumps into a young Indian man in the airport, causing him to spill the dirt he’s carrying in his ceramic elephant, except that—oops!—”It’s not dirt! It’s my father!” Then she goes outside to give Martin some attitude and, in the process, lose Leon, the dog that has been entrusted to her care. Unable to catch the pooch, she befriends the Indian, who explains that he’s come to New York to honor his father’s dying wish to be delivered to the baseball stadium and have his ashes scattered in center field. Naturally, once the two of them are en route to the stadium, he confesses that he’s made no arrangements to get permission and so has come all this way for nothing. The flight attendant tells him that his father would understand. “He wouldn’t understand,” says the kid. “It would prove that I’m a bad son.” He adds that his father always made it clear that he loved the kid’s sister more. What a douchebag. I’m glad he’s dead.
Martin, meanwhile, has beat cheeks to Arnie’s Pawn Shop, on orders from his son. When he walks in, Arnie greets him by saying, in a resigned tone, “It’s okay, I’m ready,” and generally acts like the Swede in the Hemingway story “The Killers,” the one about the guy who receives a warning that men are coming to kill him by shrugging and expressing weary relief that it’s all finally about to be over. Then, to the surprise of Martin and nobody else, a guy comes in to kill Arnie. Martin prevents this, much to the wounded Arnie’s stated displeasure, and the would-be assassin flees with a collectible baseball that he knows is worth $50,000, because that’s what Arnie gave him for it when he sold it to him. The gunman reports back to the Russian mobster he’s in hock to and apologizes for not having the money he was supposed to collect for whacking Arnie, as freaking Jack Bauer was there, looking very depressed, and screwed up his play. But he does have this valuable baseball he can use to raise the money and pay off his debt. The mobster advises him on the scarcity of second chances and wishes him godspeed.
In the end, things all turn out—well, surreally all right. The flight attendant and the Indian kid go the ball park, and of course, they can’t get in. But damned if Leon the dog isn’t there, waiting for the flight attendant. Then the guy with the baseball suffers a change of heart and gives it to the player who hit it in the big game and who seems strangely pissed that this guy ever caught it—I’m guessing some kind of Steve Bartman situation is meant to have been involved—and then, as he’s leaving the stadium, he leaves the door ajar for the Indian kid. The Russian mobster and his backup singers are waiting for him in the parking lot, but as it happens, the Russian’s son has chosen this day to unveil his new magic act, which bombs, the one kid he knows who will talk to him explains, because everyone in the neighborhood knows what his scary father does for a living. (So when you’re scared to death of somebody, you don’t applaud when he shows off his magic act for you? I would think those kids would have been standing on tables clapping on seals and cheering until their throats burst. I always figured this was why all the gangsters’ sons I’ve known got invited to the best parties, whether they brought their magic kits or not.) The kid calls his father to ask if it’s true that he’s a bad man who hurts people, which suddenly makes the father very sheepish about the fact that he was about to have his goons each grab one of the baseball enthusiast/failed hit man’s legs and make a wish. The mobster cuts the guy loose, tells his son that they’ll make just have to change the minds of all those people who are afraid of them, and reforms on the spot. How his goons feel about possibly being unemployed is a question for another day.
And what of Martin, you ask? He’s up on a roof, talking to Arnie, who’s standing on a ledge about to jump in his hospital nightie, like Tom Cruise in the last Mission: Impossible movie. Martin, who has finally figured out that Arnie set up a hit on himself because he’s been diagnosed with cancer, bleats that if Arnie doesn’t have anyone else to live for, he’ll volunteer to be his friend. Arnie looks as if he’s just about to itemize all the reasons why this isn’t as inviting a offer as Martin seems to think it should be, when the flight attendant, who’s still chasing after Leon, comes around the corner, and damned if she isn’t Arnie’s estranged daughter, suddenly eager to reunite with him and hold his hand through his chemo treatments. At the very end, during the final summing-up voiceover, we see all these characters basking in their life-changing experiences, as well as a couple of bubbly Japanese tourists whom we saw at the start of the episode on their way to Coachella but never checked in with again. I imagine that it will become part of this show’s trademark style that, every week, the only characters we kind of want to watch will be the ones who are only onscreen for 30 seconds.
Touch is remarkable for being simultaneously ambitious and half-assed, pretentious and cheeseball. Jake’s featureless blandness—he’s a totally self-sacrificial dad, and so far, that’s all he is—is the first clue that we’re watching a cosmic we-are-the-world fantasy, with Everyman for a hero. He’s the constant in a string of scenarios designed to show how so many people from so many different cultures and walks of life could be connected to each other in significant but hidden ways. Tim Kring seemed to want to drag the whole world into his previous series, Heroes, but for the first season or so, he also wanted to tell a rousing adventure yarn. Here, he and his creative team just seem to want to bask in the concept of universal oneness, and the gimmicks they come up with to illustrate this idea barely qualify as storytelling. Both Kring and Sutherland might almost be working on this slick, soppy thing as penance for their disreputable pasts as providers of mere entertainment. I have to wonder if Kring and his writers didn’t think anyone would mind how hollowly contrived the show is because it’s so openly idealistic and well-meaning. I don’t know if it’s true that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, but I bet that, at the end of that road, there’s a place where Touch is playing on every channel.