Touch is a big dumb Rube Goldberg Machine

Yesterday's episode of Touch featured quite possibly the most ludicrously complicated chain of mystically connected events yet — including misaligned satellite dishes, rotating door numbers, email typos, and overtaxed electric wires... plus social commentary on 9/11, the Iraq War, and religion, because why not?

"Kite Strings" is just as ridiculous as the preceding three episodes in how it connects together its characters. The big difference this time around was, instead of some interconnected tapestry, we instead get something more like a Rube Goldberg machine. Jake's numbers of the week are 9, 5, and 0, which leads his dad Martin to an apartment belonging to someone who knew his wife before she died on September 11.

After some confrontations about the exact nature of the guy's relationship with Martin's wife, Jake wanders out onto the fire escape, where he knocks a satellite dish out of position. That disrupts the web connection of an online consulting roadie (for lack of a better term). When his significant other checks the satellite, she's shocked to see a little boy out there, and in the tumult he accidentally changes a power recommendation in an email from 50 volts to 950 volts. This causes a band in Iraq to blow a fuse and cause some sparks on a nearby power line, which provides just enough light for some American soldiers to locate a pair of missing comrades... who only reached that point because of some remembered words of encouragement from a priest back home, who is featured in the other subplot with returning guest star Titus Welliver, who is back as a haunted firefighter who couldn't save Martin's wife on 9/11.

Touch is a big dumb Rube Goldberg MachineS

Like all Touch plots, this is all deeply silly and contrived. The show is essentially trying to pull off a magic trick each week in its plotting, with the numbers of the week meant as a misdirection that keeps you focused on the show's mystical elements while the plot contortions play themselves out. Sure, those numbers are a recurring motif, and the show comes up with some moderately clever ways to incorporate them — the guy's apartment number switching from 65 to 95 was a decently fun touch — but mostly it's just meant to keep you guessing on a show that would otherwise be critically short on mystery. I enjoyed the slightly more linear approach the show took to its connections this week, and the emotional beats are a bit better than the dreck of previous episodes, but this still isn't remotely close to a show I could recommend.

Honestly, this episode is a bit trickier to discuss than most. Unlike the previous entries, there's pretty much zero quantum mysticism, discussions about the math of the universe, or anything else that's even tangentially science fiction. Sure, there are still Jake's connections, but the main focus of the episode are three absolutely gigantic topics: September 11, the Iraq War, and the question of faith.

The problem is, since this is Touch we're talking about, we're not going to get any remotely profound insights here, but the show has progressed just enough that I can't find any of it particularly offensive, like I did a couple weeks ago. Sure, the show's 9/11 miserablism is problematic, and it's constantly on the verge of exploiting people's still visceral memories of this horrific tragedy. And yet...it's just so perfunctory, so dumb yet clearly well-intentioned in its faux-intellectualism, that I just can't work up the energy to be all that pissed off about it. Maybe if it was a few years ago, I'd feel differently, but this more just feels boring and trite than anything else.

It's the same with the Iraq War subplot. Everything we see here is so cliched that it's easy to forget that Touch is one of the few pieces of entertainment in 2012 that is even still bothering to depict the war. I'm not going to pat Touch on the head for that fact, but again, I get the sense that this stuff is all being done with the best of intentions, something I wasn't so sure about back in the pilot when Iraq just seemed like a backdrop for all the plot machinations. And yeah, that's still very much the case here — it wouldn't be Touch otherwise — but at least the show throws in a little social commentary, complete with a winningly daft Simpsons joke.

Touch is a big dumb Rube Goldberg MachineS

As for the religion stuff, the show's handling of it is so basic that I can't even bring myself to call it pretentious. It's just sort of there, and the only really memorable part of it is when some dry rotted stairs causes Titus Welliver and the priest to tumble down into a basement, then the door locks behind them, because that was hilariously absurd. To the show's credit, Welliver and the priest feel a bit more like characters than anyone else we've seen thus far. They seem to exist beyond the strict needs of the plot... but then, that's mostly because they don't actually do much of anything over the course of the episode. I'm not totally sure I can count that as progress.

And, at the end of all this is Martin Bohm, who might well have once been the world's worst investigative journalist. Once again, he's criminally slow on the uptake, with no ability to puzzle out what Jake wants beyond yelling "Jake!" a lot and rambling to strangers about fate or something. He also only just manages to work out that this guy might be avoiding Martin and asking him to leave before the guy's wife returns because there was something going on between him and Martin's dead wife.

Because this show really only deals in caricatures and thuddingly obvious plot twists, I had more or less worked out this relationship back in the cemetery. As a general rule, I probably shouldn't be that far ahead of the characters in terms of knowing what's going on, at least if there's no sign that dramatic irony is involved. Here, it just feels like we're in the company of a mute, essentially unknowable child and a feckless man who needs to be spoon fed the answers to solve even the most basic of mysteries. Our heroes, ladies and gentlemen!