Kiefer Sutherland's new drama, "Touch" (Wednesdays, 9 p.m. EST, Fox/Global), is all about hidden patterns, but the first mysterious pattern associated with the show has to do with its scheduling.
Fox is airing a "special preview" of "Touch" on Wednesday, Jan. 25, but the show doesn't have its official series premiere until March 19. Sure, "Touch" is likely to get a ratings assist from the "American Idol" audition episode that precedes it on Wednesday, but you have to think the post-"Idol" momentum will dissipate two months from now.
Of course, lots of networks are offering pilots early these days, usually on various digital platforms; that strategy worked out well for Fox's "New Girl" and NBC execs have their fingers crossed it will be effective for its Great White Way hope, "Smash." But "Touch," which comes from "Heroes" creator Tim Kring, has a more unusual premise than those two series, which are readily accessible mainstream programs that are likely to make an impression on casual viewers.
An on-air sneak preview seems less likely to help "Touch," given that this yearning drama is as muddled as much of "Heroes" was. Though it's about a young person with a special ability, the new show doesn't have a superhero hook to help sell it. Fans of "24" may stick around for more Sutherland, but I don't expect those disappointed by "Heroes" to be word-of-mouth cheerleaders for Kring's optimistic, but ultimately unsubtle new show.
It's actually to the credit of "Touch" -- which tells the story of a devoted, but overtaxed father and his mute son -- that it is not formulaic network-drama fare. And it's not as though sitting through the first hour of the show is a chore; Sutherland's magnetic performance grounds much of the enterprise in believably bittersweet emotions and director Francis Lawrence brings a sure hand to the pilot's visuals.
But "Touch" isn't content to let its premise breathe; it hammers home its central points so frequently that I do not recommend that you drink every time you hear the words "destiny," "dreams" or any iteration of the word "connect." It's common for pilots to restate their central themes frequently, but "Touch" goes overboard in that regard.
Sutherland's character, Martin Bohm, has an 11-year old son, Jake (David Mazouz), who appears to be autistic. But the show's creative team has said that that's not the right word for the boy's disorder. In any event, Jake has never spoken, does not like to be touched and spends most of his time writing down numbers in a notebook. We hear his thoughts via voiceovers, but Jake is an enigma to his father, who is struggling to keep his increasingly wayward child safe.
Without giving too much away, it becomes apparent that the numbers that fascinate Jake are not random, and we also meet an array of supporting characters who don't realize that they are all connected by special bonds. Why are these people, who are from different corners of the globe, all tied to each other? Because the show tells us they are. Nothing about these connections feels particularly earned and many of the twists and turns of the pilot feel contrived and obvious, especially toward the end.
"Touch" doesn't so much pull on your heartstrings as yank them with both hands, but Sutherland is so wonderful as Martin that I was willing to forgive that tendency. I was even willing to go along with the multiple children-in-jeopardy stories and the inevitable Sept. 11 references, mainly due to the show's sincerity and heart-on-sleeve quality. But from a storytelling perspective, I don't know where "Touch" goes from here or what it wants to say, aside from some generalities about how technology both isolates and connects us.
In the future, do Martin and the child's social worker, Clea (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) -- who has a preposterous amount of time to devote to one client -- simply run around and avert tragedies, thanks to Jake's enigmatic clues? Does the show continue to find contrived and mawkish ways to unite various global citizens and remind them that they are, yes, connected? Is any of that going to be interesting, once you get past Sutherland's performance and Danny Glover's appearances as an eccentric genius who may have the key to Jake's condition?
Given Kring's track record with "Heroes," which found dozens of ways to mess up a relatively straightforward premise, I'm dubious of "Touch's" ability to tell disciplined, believable stories going forward. According to the show's press site, Martin's "quest to reach his emotionally challenged 11-year-old son will shape the destiny of the entire planet."
It's good that "Touch" is aiming high, but not everything can be taken on faith.
Note: The premiere of "Touch" runs for 67 minutes total, so check your DVR if you are recording the show.
"Touch" previews Mon., Jan. 25, 9 p.m. EST; series premieres Mon., Mar. 19, 9 p.m. EST on Fox.
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