The new supernatural drama from Tim Kring – the man credited (initially, at least) with creating Heroes – starts out simply enough, introducing us to single dad Martin Bohm (Kiefer Sutherland) and his 10-year-old son Jake (David Mazouz). Martin’s wife died during the 9/11 attacks, leaving him to raise Jake alone. His son carries around a sketchbook filled with scribbled numbers and has never spoken a word. But, according to local hobo-professor Arthur Teller (a fantastically bat-shit Danny Glover), Jake has the uncanny ability to spot the mathematical patterns that exist in the world around us, and predict the path of serendipity. Unfortunately, Jake’s methods of communication leave a lot to be desired. So while he’s counting out piles of popcorn kernels on the carpet, or dialing numbers into his dad’s cellphone, it’s left to Martin and social worker Clea (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) to decipher whatever clues he’s left for them to follow. Invariably, Jake’s insight sparks off a series of seemingly unrelated encounters that culminate in an overwhelmingly satisfying climax. The complexity, when it works, is staggering.
The show’s appeal, however, also owes a lot to its lead actor. Audiences are no stranger to Kiefer Sutherland’s perpetually exasperated face from his days as agent Jack Bauer. Martin, on the other hand, isn’t the kind of guy who can defuse a tense situation with a snarl and a fistful of bullets. He’s a normal guy with a home life that’s anything but, and it shows in every pitiful sigh. Jake’s abilities (let’s not call them powers, lest we inadvertently start an improbable chain of events that leads Kring to forget the lessons he should have learned with Heroes) are misinterpreted by most of the world as an emotional disconnect, and as Martin stumbles around NYC trying to explain to perfect strangers that he knows he has to help them – just not how – most of Touch’s incidental cast look at him like he’s as far-gone as his son.
It’s no great stretch to figure out why Kring’s is such a comforting premise. While audiences across the world wrestle with the daily diet of doom and gloom spewing forth from their television, it’s hard to see much rhyme or reason in the maelstrom. But the idea that order can be applied to the chaos – if only by a mute 10-year-old – is a reassuring one. And the notion that something as outwardly ordinary as parental dedication can be the bridge between confusion and perfect clarity gives a warm, fuzzy feeling that few will be able to resist. In each episode we meet a never-ending stream of down-and-outs – good-hearted people that have had a rough deal. Without being privy to Jake’s omniscience, they – like us – are doomed to try, try and try again. And life will still probably kick us in the ass when we’re done. But in Touch, there’s hope, however fleeting, that there might be a logic to everything that happens to us. It’s a weekly hour of idealistic escapism. For many of us, shitty things just happen, but in Jake’s mind – and Kring’s world – everything works out in the end if you stick to what’s important. Love your family and try to be nice. Kring has taken the ultimate motivational poster and turned it into a series. And instead of choking on the sickly sweetness, Touch slides down like a wholesome, family meal.
In fact, it’s such a comforting idea that it makes the show’s missteps easier to forgive. In Kring’s attempts to hammer home the idea that the entire world is connected, many of the show’s incidental characters are from far-flung destinations (a teenager-turned-suicide bomber from Iraq, an Indian man on a pilgrimage to Yankee stadium, giggly Tokyopop princesses) and rarely rise above eye-rolling stereotypes. And in an attempt to show off just how grandiose his dream of global harmony is, Kring rehashes the same continent-hopping story arcs time and time again. If anything, it enhances the effect. Week after week, we’re treated to another example of how anybody, anywhere can find themselves part of a web that usually winds up with a happy ending. That’s more palatable than doom and gloom anyday.