When FOX aired the pilot of “Touch” back in January – months ahead of the official season premiere tomorrow night at 9 – I wrote that the episode succeeded at making a lot of tricky ideas work together, but that I feared future episodes might not work as well. The concept – a mute, insular boy has the ability to see patterns in the chaos of everyday life that his father can use to help strangers – seemed too elaborate a Rube Goldberg device to run smoothly every week, particularly since the man at the controls was Tim Kring, who got off to a good start on “Heroes” before losing his grip quickly. The “Touch” pilot worked even as there were all kinds of danger signs about why it shouldn’t have, and I worried that it would be hard to get the pieces to align perfectly in future installments.
I’ve now seen both the episode premiering tomorrow and the one airing next week. Tomorrow’s episode confirms all of my fears about the show – if anything, it’s even worse than I thought things could get – while next week’s maybe rises to mediocrity, and without any of the emotional impact that made me forgive a whole lot of contrivances in the pilot.
Since the events of the pilot, Kiefer Sutherland’s struggling single dad Martin Bohm has thrown himself wholly into the mission of helping son Jake (David Mazouz) make sense of the numbers. Jake still won’t talk, and the hug at the end of the pilot seems to be a one-time thing, but Martin finally feels like his son is communicating with him, and he’s desperate to keep the lines open. So he sets about on a path that involves a frail pawnshop owner(*), a lonely flight attendant, a grieving tourist from India, a stadium peanut vendor and a Russian middle school student convinced that his magic act will make him wildly popular.
(*) Played by Sutherland’s old “24” co-star Jude Ciccolella. Sadly, the Jack Bauer/Mike Novick reunion comes in a really awful episode.
Where the various threads of the pilot all tied together neatly, everything feels frayed here. There’s a lot of clumsy exposition, and every development is telegraphed five or six scenes in advance. When the big emotional climax happened in the pilot, I smiled; this one made me groan and bellow, “Oh, come on!” Both are manipulative, but one works because the scenes before it properly set it up, had good performances attached and didn’t give everything away in advance, while the other one just expects you to get choked up because it’s at that point in the episode formula.
Just as cringe-inducing is another visit by Martin to see Arthur Teller (Danny Glover), the bathrobe-clad eccentric who claims to know exactly how Jake’s gift works. Here’s the show’s New Age-y mission statement, courtesy of Teller:
“Sometimes, when the numbers don’t add up, it means there’s some cosmic pain that has to be healed.”
Cosmic pain? Really? That’s their answer? Gah.
And I’m not even saying I want a more concrete explanation for how he does what he does. Too many stories get bogged down in trying to rationalize what’s essentially magic. Better to just tell good stories and accept that this is happening rather than solve a non-existent puzzle. The problem is that “Touch” does spend a lot of time trying to explain things; it just does it ways that are alternately pretentious (each episode opens with a Jake-narrated monologue comparing humanity to, say, fire ants) and cornball (again, see cosmic pain).
Beyond that, the show’s structure necessitates a bunch of new guest characters each week, appearing in spots around the globe. The pilot just barely sketched them all in enough, but in later episodes, they’re too thinly-drawn, and the various international settings embarrassing in their use of stereotypes. Each episode so far features a pair of female friends from Japan, giggling girls dressed in Sailor Moon-style fetish costumes, and the scenes involving the magic-loving Russian boy seem to be taking place back in the days of the former Soviet Union.
What’s worse is that Martin’s actions sometimes barely have anything to do what happens in the various globe-trotting subplots. In the pilot, he dropped a cell phone onto a luggage conveyer belt after getting a call from Jake’s school, and that was all it took to trigger a cascade of events in the UK, Japan and the Middle East. In these next two episodes, he’s even less connected to most of this material, which is just there to illustrate the show’s philosophy about how we’re all connected by a red thread or somesuch.
And it’s not like the main characters in New York (with LA locations substituting awkwardly for the Big Apple) are strong enough to compensate for the guest caricatures littered around the globe. Jake by design is a silent enigma. Gugu Mbatha-Raw barely has anything to play as the social worker who also believes in Jake’s gifts but has to work within the system. Sutherland is placed in enough ticking-clock situations that he can dust off that Jack Bauer-level intensity (heck, he’s even playing a character named “Bohm,” as in “tell me where…”), but all that shouting at times feels at odds with the more touchy-feelie vibe Kring is going for.
Tomorrow’s episode is an instance where everything the show is trying to do goes wrong at once. The one after it just suggests that getting the series in balance every week will be a very tall order. Either way, I feel like I’ve seen enough of a pattern here to know that “Touch” isn’t for me.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org