Touch: Tim Kring's Global Group Hug

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We're rerunning this review of the Touch pilot, which originally aired as a "special preview event" in January, because the episode aired again tonight in preparation for the show's official premiere. And by "official premiere," we mean "Episode 2": Look for it next Thursday, March 22 at 9pm on Fox.


Come on, guys, bring it in. That's right, let's all put our arms each other and have a good cry. The debut of Touch, Fox's new drama about cosmic interconnectivity, was an eyeball-wringer, stretching heartstrings and kidnapping the soft spot in our brain that prevents us from becoming blubbering, tearful idiots. The pilot episode, which aired tonight as a special "advanced preview" (the series officially begins on March 22) again tonight in preparation for next week's official premiere, was a momentary redemptive return to television for Tim Kring, the once-cherished-and-ultimately-maligned creator of NBC's Heroes. Heroes started out great and gathered a devoted audience before eventually becoming a benchmark for television's spectacular falls from viewers' good graces. Though hardcore fans will tell you otherwise, there's no other way to put it: Heroes stank at the end of Season 1 and kept on stinking through Season 4, collapsing under the weight of its own over-ambition.

It's too early to tell where Touch will end up, but so far, things are looking fairly good. Before Heroes went to carnivals and added a new character every thirty seconds, it worked because it deftly handled themes of belief, power, and change. Touch looks to be equally theme-heavy, focusing on the universe's grand plans for us all. I'm a sucker for strong themes, because shows with strong themes are the ones that stay with you long after you watch them.

Martin Bohm (Kiefer Sutherland, in his first TV role since 24) is a widowed man struggling to support his mute and possibly fortune-telling son Jake (newcomer David Mazouz, who is great as a kid who can't actually do much). Jake is lost in a world of numbers and patterns; the pilot saw Martin, after witnessing a few eerie events, start to believe his son was using those numbers and patterns to try to communicate. Social Services thought otherwise, and recommended that the government intervene to give Jake the support he needs. It was dad trying to hang onto his son after mom was killed in the September 11 attacks, which formed the emotional backbone of the episode and eventually branched out far beyond Martin and Jake.

The pilot jumped all over the globe: a teen boy in Baghdad faced the threat of his family's bakery shutting down, a female customer service rep in Dublin dreamed of being a singing superstar, a Japanese escort became a vessel for a message, a traveling businessman was desperate to see photos of his deceased daughter that were saved only on his lost phone, and an American firefighter named Randy (the always awesome Titus Welliver) played the same numbers in the lottery over and over and had a scuffle with Martin at a gas station. These stories unfolded slowly in bits and pieces, but never strayed from getting to the point.

In seeking answers for Jake's troubles, Martin eventually came upon Arthur Dewitt (Danny Glover), a man who would normally be institutionalized for all the psycho-babble that came out of his mouth with regard to what he called Jake's ability to understand the hidden messages of the universe. But this is Touch, so all his chatter about patterns, quantum entanglement, and pineapples turned out to be sage-like wisdom (a single bonus point for changing the trope of "old black woman as oracle" to "old black man as oracle"). He told Martin that it's his duty to use the clues Jake presents as a road map to figure out what his son can see. And there's your scoop on what the rest of the series will probably look like.

With this sense of destiny put upon him, Martin flipped through Jake's numeric scribbles and pulled out a phone number, which he back-traced to Grand Central Station in New York City. Jake's social worker, Clea (Undercovers' Gugu Mbatha-Raw, or as I like to say, Mbatha-RAWR 'cuz she fiiiine), learned firsthand that Jake was a little magician when he spelled out a phone number in popcorn. She recognized the number, and moments later, her phone rang with a call from that same number. Jake later circled March 18 on the calendar (the day's date), and Martin and Clea realized that something was going down. They sped to Grand Central, Martin called the phone number, and it led them to a payphone that Randy was using. At this point, we didn't know whether Jake was trying to prevent Randy from setting off a bomb or whether it was all a big ball of hooey, but Martin and Randy resumed their fight from the gas station and were restrained by security, forcing Randy to miss his train. Something seriously cosmic was going on that our puny brains could not comprehend.

Martin got home and received an old phone message from Randy, the same message he was trying to leave when Martin interrupted him at Grand Central. Randy had called Martin to tell him he was at the World Trade Center during the attacks on September 11, and was carrying Martin's wife to safety when he couldn't carry her any longer. He regretted leaving her behind, and said he was giving away all his recent lottery winnings because he felt that's what she would want. A stunned Martin had only a millisecond to register all this before a TV newsflash showed Randy on the screen, being interviewed because he'd rescued kids from a burning school bus... a school bus that Jake had previously shown interest in. Randy said he wouldn't have had the chance to rescue the kids if he'd made his train, which he missed because Jake's clues sent Martin to intercept Randy. It was a busy day for Randy.

In the episode's exhilarating ending, all the global stories came together like in those Liberty Mutual ads where one person witnesses someone doing a good deed for someone else, and pays it forward. The kid in Baghdad got an oven for his family only after the customer service rep talked him out of being a suicide bomber. The rep found internet fame after the Japanese escort had video of her plastered on giant screens in Tokyo, video she got from a phone that found its way into her hands. The London businessman got to see his daughter because he happened to be in Tokyo as the contents of his phone were shown on those same screens. And because Mr. Businessman was a restaurant supply salesperson, he was presumably the man who got the kid in Baghdad the oven via the customer service rep. Cheesy as it sounds, it was all packaged very well and required a few handkerchiefs to get through.

They were thrilling moments driven by emotion, a wonderful score, and strong performances from the bit players. Each story was given just enough time to latch its meat hooks into our cold hearts, and when London Businessdad saw his dead daughter on giant screens and started to cry, it pumped the well that held our tears. Or at the very least, came close.

Annnnnd here's where I become a big party pooper. Touch, particularly the ending I just talked about, does smack of emotional manipulation and feel-goodiness just for the sake of feel-goodiness, like a giant Hallmark monster that sustains itself on tears of joy. There's nothing outright wrong about that. We watch television to feel all sorts of things. And the thrill I got from that ending during my first viewing of the episode was genuine and made me hug my cat HARD. But is this what we'll endure with each episode? If so, how long will it be until audiences say, "Oh this again."

As a series, how will everything work? Will Martin always be waiting for Jake to churn out numbers like he's a living version of the computer from Person of Interest? Will that lead to Martin and Clea in a case-of-the-week style adventure to make someone's life better as if they're in a fictional version of Extreme Home Makeover but for lives and not homes? I have no idea how Tim Kring will be able to sustain this premise.

Will Touch operate like an anthology, with half of each episode dedicated to stories not related to Martin and Jake? Or is it satisfying enough to connect the two because Martin does something like leave a phone on a random suitcase, thus setting those seemingly unrelated things in motion?

And what about all the numbers and their connectedness, particularly Jake's obsession with the number 318? I get that "3/18" related to the date of the bus accident that was going to be prevented. But was Jake only able to connect that particular bus to everything because it was bus number 318? What if it was bus number 317? And how did going up on the water tower at 3:18 relate? And when he went to circle March 18 on the calendar, he was clearly communicating in a way we could understand. So can he communicate or not? Will Jake set his alarm for different times depending on what numeric combination he's obsessed with each week? It may seem like Kring is trying to form connections just because he can, but he will always be able to get away with doing so as long as the interconnectivity is set against something that we will never be able to understand (only Jake gets it). It's like the argument that God exists because you can't prove that he doesn't.

What Kring does have working in his favor are lessons he learned from Heroes. If the story structure of the Touch pilot is any indication, Kring will be able to preach his word across the globe (as he likes to do) with disposable characters rather than populate his series with a cast equal in size to the population of New York City. He'll also be able to focus on the relationship between Martin and Jake and air out his other less-formed concepts in standalone stories. Kring had good ideas with Heroes, but couldn't maintain them beyond a few episodes. An environment in which he can forget about them after a week should benefit him.

Thematically, Touch's pilot worked very well and should leave viewers with a better sense of their place in the world. The fewer questions you ask about plot, the more enjoyable it is. But there WERE a lot of questions that came up, and they interfered with my absolute enjoyment of it. As a passing piece of art, the episode did the trick, and there's enough going on to get me to tune in for Episode 2 in March. But when considering whether this numbers-and-patterns drama will be Fox's great next series, it's wait-and-see regarding whether it'll add up.


Follow TV.com writer Tim Surette on Twitter: @TimAtTVDotCom