A successful TV drama premiere achieves two key objectives: it delivers a thoroughly-entertaining, engaging standalone hour and it introduces a compelling plotline, a signature storytelling style and a three-dimensional cast of characters that viewers will want to experience once a week, every week, for several years.
It is thus unsurprising that the debut episode of FOX’s “Touch” is being promoted a “preview” rather than a series premiere or pilot. If graded against the aforementioned “premiere rubric,” it would miserably fail on the latter of the two grounds.
And the episode is far too entertaining, emotional and well-crafted to find itself on the same planet as the word “failure.”
Kiefer Sutherland’s return to the network following “24,” “Touch” centers on Jake Bohm (David Mazouz), a seemingly-autistic, young boy who demonstrates a peculiar obsession with numbers. Jake narrates the show, and is quick to reveal that the narration is the only verbal dialogue he has ever delivered; in real life with his widower father Martin (Sutherland), he is a mute.
Martin, whose wife was killed in the World Trade Center on 9/11, devotes his entire life to Jake. He works hard, currently as a luggage handler, without any question or regret–his love for his son is undying, so much so that he cannot even step back to evaluate the weight of the burden.
A brutal dose of perspective is delivered by social worker Clea Hopkins (the stunning Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who, after a series of incidents involving the child, arrives to evaluate Jake’s living condition. In a sympathetic, yet frank conversation with Martin, Clea bluntly points out that since Jake does not communicate and objects to being touched, one cannot assume that he desires his current living situation–or that he even fully appreciates who Martin is.
Though visibly shaken by the discussion, Martin’s faith in his son–and in their bond–remains. He specifically draws attention to Jake’s fixation with “3:18,” noting that all instances of Jake being caught climbing a restricted cellular tower (the “incident” that required Clea to intervene) happened at that exact time, like clockwork. Between that and other examples of Jake’s obsession with these particular numbers (and numbers in general), Martin believes Jake is trying to communicate something.
A chain of events ultimately makes it clear to Martin–and eventually Clea as well–that Jake possesses an ability to predict the future. Something significant, they fear, is going to happen involving Jake’s numbers, and they have to figure out how to act on his forecast.
With that backdrop, the show could easily go in the direction of absymal films like “Mercury Rising” and “Knowing.” Instead, at least for this special premiere episode, it strives for something more meaningful than a child’s ability to predict the future from seemingly-arbitrary numbers. While that “future” element is indeed present, the real overarching theme here is the interconnectivity of humanity and the universe it inhabits. Jake has an infinitely-rare ability to process that greater design, which is how he is able to forecast things before they actually happen.
And so, we know more is at play, and we know that the various characters to whom we are introduced–a foreign businessman desperately trying to recover his daughter’s photo from a lost cell phone, an Irish call center worker lacking the confidence to pursue her dream of singing, an Iraqi boy and aspiring comedian who vows to help his family overcome economic hardship, a shady New Yorker obsessed with playing a certain lottery number and a young Japanese escort who cons her clientele–are going to meaningfully intersect.
And, in the case of “Touch,” the intersections serve to drive meaningful self-discovery for the characters; they are not there for the sake of being “cute” (like those found in movies like “He’s Just Not That Into You”). Sure, many of these connections are created by ridiculous, totally-improbable coincidences, but the emotion is significant enough to make viewers ignore the storytelling “conveniences.”
“Touch” gives each individual thread a beautiful, cinematic treatment, framing the emotion from the standpoint of the individual experiences. When two characters engage in a pivotal phone call, the viewer is led to truly, deeply feel emotion over the fact that two characters who believed themselves to have no control over their destinies as marginalized humans suddenly realize how much they matter and how empowered they truly are. The viewer does not smile simply because two previously unrelated characters are making contact–there is meaning behind the interaction.
In that sense, the storytelling plays out very much like the early episodes of “Touch” creator Tim Kring’s previous drama “Heroes.” If “Heroes” focused on the wonder of people discovering their supernatural abilities and their resulting need to connect with others for a greater purpose, the various threads on “Touch” reveal how faith in our connection to fellow man will put us in position to learn who we really are and discovery what we truly can do.
All of this makes for heartwarming, engaging, nearly-perfect television. The problem, of course, is that this storytelling concept is far too special, far too emotionally-involved and far too cinematic to happen on a weekly basis. If “Touch” ever tried to focus on deriving emotion from this many separate stories again, it would make everything that happens in the premiere worthless.
And so, it is hard to really get a sense of how the show will hold up in future installments. We get a “hint” of the kind of direction Martin, Jake and Clea will take, given a final scene with Jake and the fact that their storyline is more action-driven, procedural and reproducible than the others (though one pivotal moment between Jake and Martin cannot be reproduced on a weekly basis), but we do not yet know the tone that will underscore their plotlines in future episodes.
What we do know, however, is that Kiefer Sutherland is very game and delivers a tremendous performance. While some scenes, such as a determined Martin running through Grand Central Station, seem very “24,” this character is not at all Jack Bauer. He is not necessarily a “weak” character, but he does not always feel mentally and physically empowered. He doesn’t always seem content on playing by the rules, but he also accepts much of the constraints created by the world in which he lives, and he recognizes that everything will not necessarily go his way.
And, in a very un-Jack Bauer moment, one scene features Martin crumbling after taking a single punch to the stomach.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw has not yet found her groove from an acting standpoint, but as a presence, she fits into the mix well. The characters in the various threads are also effective.
Writing-wise, viewers should not expect sharp, innovative dialogue–the writing seems to be based on a big picture perspective: if the story is interesting and the emotion palpable, the job is done.
It is highly-unlikely that anyone who watches Wednesday’s preview will regret the time they devoted to the show, and many of those viewers should be willing to give the next episode a shot, even if this one does not fully inform them of what future episodes will entail.
The excellent “Touch” preview airs at 9PM Wednesday night.