On Touch, math and total bullshit reveal the secrets of the universeS

Last night, Fox aired a preview of its new series Touch, which kicks off properly in March. What we saw was a just barely decent show about connectivity, fate, lost cellphones, and the mysterious, mystical powers of numbers.

Spoilers ahead!

I might as well start by addressing the colossal elephant in the room and say that, yes, this is Heroes creator Tim Kring's big return to television. That knowledge makes it hard to approach the future of this show with anything but dread — after all, Heroes started fairly well before devolving into one of the biggest trainwrecks in TV history. As a discrete hour of television, the Touch pilot is decent, but Kring's prior track record says that won't last. Still, I think the only fair way to approach Touch is on its own terms, and that means it's probably best just to take this one episode at a time and keep an open mind about where it all might lead. Even if, yeah, there's about a 90% chance we're headed nowhere good.

Aside from a bit of insight into Kiefer Sutherland's character, grieving widower Martin Bohm, Touch is pretty much all one giant puzzle, in which a bunch of seemingly random people are introduced and, with a little push from Martin's mute son Jake, shown to be all connected by the number 318. The story is basically a pair of Rube Goldberg machines loosely stitched together, and only one of them really seems to involve Martin and Jake, at least at first glance.

On Touch, math and total bullshit reveal the secrets of the universeS

The first story finds Martin working as a baggage handler at JFK Airport, which is the latest in a series of odd jobs all meant to help him "find himself", as he rather cryptically explains at one point. His son Jake, who has been diagnosed as autistic, keeps climbing on top of cell phone towers at 3:18, which brings Martin into contact with Child Protective Services worker Clea Hopkins (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who tells Martin he may no longer be able to care for his son. Martin and Jake also encounter Deadwood's Titus Welliver, who plays a lottery-playing asshole with a winning ticket.

In the second, seemingly disconnected plot, a British businessman has lost his cellphone, which is wending its way all over the world from an aspiring singer in Dublin to a prostitute in Tokyo to some terrorists in Baghdad. Jake's influence on this side of the story is so subtle and tangential that I almost missed it, but it's one of his tower climbs that makes Martin lose the businessman's phone and enables the rest of the plot.

Touch is all about connectivity and coincidences, and how seemingly random encounters are really the machinations of fate, represented here as the mathematics of the universe...or something. Honestly, the science of Touch is complete bullshit, a New Age hodgepodge of magic math and what seemed to be some vague stuff about quantum mechanics, all of which a rather haggard-looking Danny Glover shows up to explain in a quick infodump. As someone who knows the first thing about science, I can confidently say that it's transparently crap, and I hope the show isn't going to commit too hard to its preposterous metaphysics. Now, to the show's credit, outside that one scene and Jake's opening and closing voiceovers, it doesn't waste our time with unconvincing explanations and nonsensical mythology... though I suspect we'll get plenty of both in due time.

Instead, the episode tries to wow us by revealing, through a series of shocking twists, the tapestry that weaves all these characters together. This sort of thing was all the rage in the mid-00s with movies like Crash and Babel. Like Crash, Touch doesn't draw its supporting characters as anything more than quick caricatures and archetypes, which means it's difficult to get that emotionally invested in the plights of the grieving businessman or the self-loathing firefighter or the struggling singer. A better version of this show might have taken the time to provide some actual insight into who these characters are as people, rather than walking cliches we've seen countless times before. The would-be comedian in Baghdad probably comes the closest to feeling like a real person, but that might just be because he's in mortal danger for most of his story, which gives his tale an extra immediacy it might not otherwise have earned.

Maybe it's just because I've seen a few too many of these types of stories, but I can't honestly say all the interconnected stuff worked that well for me. The twists mostly either felt too obvious — indeed, the emotional beat that resolves the British businessman's story was telegraphed well ahead of time — or too contrived, like the hidden connection between Kiefer Sutherland's and Titus Welliver's characters (although the voicemail message was a nice touch). This is a show where you have to just get on board with the idea that fate is an extremely active player in our lives, and Jake's ability to push people together goes far beyond what we mortals could logically explain. I'm mainly thinking of how the singer turns out to be the call center operator who ends up connecting the British businessman with the boy in Baghdad, which seems like a staggering coincidence even by the standards of everything else going on.

On Touch, math and total bullshit reveal the secrets of the universeS

Still, I don't want to write Touch off just yet. While I wasn't that impressed by the connections we saw here, I could see how this could work quite well for viewers who perhaps aren't quite so familiar with this form of storytelling. And, if nothing else, Keifer Sutherland is quite good as Martin Bohm. Martin doesn't make that much sense as a character so far — there's some backstory about him quitting his job as a reporter after his wife's death on September 11 that doesn't quite come into focus — but Sutherland is a compelling presence, and he feels believable as the father of a child he doesn't even begin to understand but is desperate to connect with. It's hard to know who else will be back when the show returns in March — I'm not sure how much of a role Danny Glover will have going forward, for instance — but Gugu Mbatha-Raw provides decent support as Martin's eventual ally, and young David Mazouz acquits himself well both onscreen, and in voice-over as Jake.

The big question I have is just how this is going to work as a weekly series. Yes, Touch gives a good sense of what its formula will be, as Martin pledges to follow the road map that Jake gives him. But churning out coincidence-driven plots on a weekly basis seems like a gargantuan task, particularly when you consider that the pilot leans on one of the most obvious engines for such a plot — a lost cellphone — and even then barely pulls it off. Also, if the show is going to keep globetrotting, it really needs to come up with a better way of indicating changes in geography — the worst moment in the pilot might have been where the aspiring singer randomly declares that her boyfriend has video of her singing in a bar in "Dublin, Ireland" - as though viewers might mistake this city full of Irish people for Dublin, Georgia or something. Surely, this is what captions are for.

So where does that leave us? I'm going to give Touch about the weakest positive recommendation I possibly can. This is a moderately compelling hour of television, and it has a bit more verve and gusto to it than some other shows we've seen lately. Still, for all my protestations that I aim to review this show in isolation from what its creator has done before, it's hard to ignore the show's central message — that past, present, and future are all interconnected — and not come away from Touch feeling very, very wary about what lies ahead.