When Touch premiered in January, I wondered how the pilot's interlocking, coincidence- and contrivance-driven formula could possibly support a weekly series. Well, if last night's big bag of ridiculousness is anything to go by, it can't. It really, really can't.
As a general rule, I don't think it's fair to write off a TV series until you've at least seen a few episodes, given the show some time to figure out what works and what doesn't and how best to tell stories within its format on a weekly basis. But with Touch, man, am I ever tempted to just walk away right now. Last night's episode was basically the pilot all over again, except all the coincidences that were only mildly silly and woven together with a bit of artfulness the first time around became...well, you can see the headline.
For those who have forgotten all about Touch since its sneak preview back in January and feel compelled to actually remember what it's about, this is the show where Keifer Sutherland is Martin Bohm, the father of a mute, seemingly autistic child named Jake who has some innate connection to the numbers and pattern that underlie the universe. Jake shares one or two of these numbers with Martin, and off they go helping people connect with each other through a string of insane coincidences. Also, Jake's opening and closing monologues and Danny Glover's self-declared expert want you to believe this has something to do with quantum mechanics. Basically, for this show to work, you have to buy into this idea of an alternate reality where numbers are the magic source code of the universe or something, and it's possible to subtly manipulate this to help people. And that's theoretically a compelling enough idea, I guess, if Touch didn't make such a complete ass of the whole thing.
Tonight's episode, "1+1=3", finds Martin following a phone number given to him by Jake to a pawn shop just moments before the place is robbed. What Martin doesn't realize is that the robbery is actually a hit in which the cancer-stricken pawn shop owner Artie has paid to eliminate himself so that his estranged daughter Becca can get some insurance money. When Martin gets in the way and Artie is only shot in the arm, the robber loses out on his $10,000 fee that he needs to pay off a Russian mobster. Meanwhile, an airline attendant has lost a dog at the airport, so she decides to go help an Indian gentleman scatter his father's ashes at a baseball stadium.
As I said when I reviewed the pilot, I am willing to grant the show a slightly greater than normal suspension of disbelief just to keep its coincidence-driven narrative rolling along. But goodness, so much of what happened tonight was just deeply, deeply stupid. The worst offender was probably that runaway dog, which somehow managed to escape the airport without anyone catching it and then magically made its way to the exact same baseball stadium where the airline attendant was, and then raced on to facilitate the big reunion between the airline attendant and her father the pawn shop owner. I don't care how mystical the powers of numbers are, I just can't look at that whole thread as anything other completely stupid. That didn't just break my suspension of disbelief - it took it out back and shot it.
It would help if it felt like there was actually a point to any of this. The big climactic moment for Martin is where he confronts the pawn shop owner just as he's about to fling himself off a bridge, and he gives a big impassioned speech about how his son Jake has brought them together and this should be evidence that there are still people out there who care about him. That really should be the show's big mission statement there, the moment that crystallizes all its points about how we're interconnected and part of a larger whole. The pawn shop owner's response? He jumps off the bridge anyway, or at least he would have if Martin didn't forcibly restrain him.
Another problem is just how artificial this all feels. Even more so than the first episode, where at least Titus Welliver showed up to give his grieving firefighter a hint of pathos, all the characters here are featureless stereotypes being moved around a big chessboard, and not even particularly skillfully either. The moment I learned the pawn shop owner had a daughter I was about 99% certain the airline attendant was his daughter, simply because she was the only white woman in the episode.
Honestly, calling them one-dimensional would probably be giving most of them too much credit, as I couldn't even give you a coherent description of any of these characters after this episode. For instance, why does the robber/peanut vendor suddenly decide to stop running from his debts and make amends, other than because the plot demands it at that moment? There's the skeleton of a character arc here, but there's no real attempt to back it up with any details or basic information about who he is. And really, I'm not even going to get started on the Indian dude and his comically awful dead father. I just wouldn't even know where to start with what went wrong there.
Also, did that Russian mobster really just quit the Russian mob because his son asked him one vague question about whether he hurts people? If he quit the Russian mob over that, he's got to be the worst Russian mobster in the world, and I've got to think any actual Russian mob worth its salt probably wouldn't be cool with that. (Sorry, I just enjoy the phrase "Russian mob", and I'll take any enjoyment I can get right now.)
Basically, if the plot is going to be this contrived, it would at least be nice if I got the slightest insight into any of these characters I'm spending an hour with. Not to mention his son's call had pretty much nothing to do with Jake's numbers. I really don't like throwing around the term "deus ex machina", because that critique is hideously overused, but the son's entire subplot and the timing of his call in particular seemed to only exist to give his dad a flimsy pretext to call off the peanut vendor's debt, and with no apparent connection to Jake that just seems like a particularly bad contrivance.
Going back to the problem of artificiality, I guess I can see why neither the New York Yankees or Mets would let Touch use their actual logos or stadium names for the baseball part of this episode. But the substitutes the writers came up with were so hopelessly generic - seriously, the name of the stadium was New York Stadium - that it felt like the sports equivalent of a 555 telephone number. Which, considering they actually managed to use an authentic-looking telephone number for the pawn shop, is really something of an accomplishment. Also, I'm pretty sure that stadium was CGI, and goodness did it look awful.
Finally, the show's other regular character, social worker Clea Hopkins, is pretty much useless. The whole custody angle seems like a big miscalculation, a pointless diversion that exists purely to make Martin a bit more miserable. And really, Martin gets more than miserable enough in his attempts to communicate with Jake, I don't really think we need Jake's weekly escape attempt. Gugu Mbatha-Raw - also known as Martha's sister on Doctor Who - is perfectly good in the part, but I just don't see what she contributes to this show right now.
So, yeah, this was a pretty bad hour of television, with about the only thing making it vaguely palatable was Keifer Sutherland's presence - I've got to admit that I find him enjoyable to watch, even when he's stuck in pretty bland role that requires him to do utterly ridiculous things like continue badgering the pawn show owner about their mystical connection even after he got shot in the arm. Honestly, I doubt that Touch can be saved, as all the things that were weak in the pilot have become massive, gaping flaws in this second episode. That's not exactly a good sign.
For what it's worth, I don't think the core concept of Touch is totally unworkable, although it would help if the show itself had any sense what that concept is supposed to be. As far as I can work out, this show's most interesting theme is about interconnectedness, the idea that pulling on one tiny thread can reveal the shape of some larger whole. I can think of some very good works that played around with that idea - just off the top of my head, Douglas Adams's Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency and the David O. Russell movie I Heart Huckabees. Of course, both of those holistic/existential detective stories had a sense of humor about the whole thing and were fully aware of the basic ridiculousness of it all. Touch seems to want us to take it seriously. Right now, that is a bad, bad idea.