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Touch

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This TV season, we’ve got so many writers who’ve seen these pilots that we thought getting two takes on each show would be helpful to you. The first review is the “official” TV Club review, and the grade applies to it. But we’ve also found another reviewer to offer their own take on the program. Today, Todd VanDerWerff and Ryan McGee talk about Touch.

Touch debuts tonight at 9 p.m. Eastern on Fox. It will officially begin airing in March.

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Todd: There’s an intriguing idea that is, I suspect, mostly bullshit. The idea is that if we could just boil the universe down to its purest mathematics, we could see everything, like we lived in the Matrix and we were Neo when he sees everything made out of green code. The idea is that everything is programming, that when you start pulling things apart and get down to their guts, you’ll find the 2 + 2 = 4 that makes everything run along. And, yes, almost everything can be expressed as a mathematical equation, and, yes, if you understand math and science, you’ll have a better idea of what’s to come. But there’s gotta be a line somewhere, right? There’s gotta be a point somewhere between “The Fibonacci sequence recurs throughout the natural world” and “NUMBERS ARE MAGIC!” At least, I hope so.

Tim Kring, the creator of Heroes who’s now returning to our televisions with his new series Touch, falls more on the “NUMBERS ARE MAGIC!” side of things. To be fair, it makes sense why he would. After all, hidden patterns undergirding everything in the universe makes for more compelling fiction than random chance. Early in the first episode of Touch, the audience hears a voiceover from Jake Bohm (David Mazouz), a child who’s been diagnosed as autistic and never speaks to anyone (but the audience, of course). He talks at length about the idea that numbers connect everything we do, about a Chinese story that says a red thread runs between everybody in the world that you’re ever destined to meet. If you could just tug at that thread, apparently, you’d bring everybody you know or ever will know crashing into you, and you’d see how beautifully the pattern is laid out.

Yes, Touch belongs to a type of narrative you might call the “coincidence narrative.” The hidden spine of the coincidence narrative has nothing to do with character or even plot. It all has to do with happenstance. There are some great stories within the category of coincidence narratives. I’m partial to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, for instance, where the character beats are skillful but are mostly there to propel forward the idea that all of these seemingly disconnected people are actually—dun, dun, dun—connected in a way they don’t understand yet. The best distillation of the coincidence narrative is that film’s opening prologue, in which a bunch of “true” (I use quotation marks because, well, none of them are true, it seems) stories play out, showing us the weird coincidences in play in all of them. The idea is that these weird little urban legends we hear about from friends or in the blurbs after Readers Digest articles are the sorts of things we wouldn’t buy if we saw them in movies, but they happen every day.

The coincidence narrative is particularly attractive to someone like Kring because Kring dabbles in the world of genre fiction, and in the world of genre fiction, a stand-in for God is often required. If you’re looking for a science-y God, numbers work as well as anything else, I suppose, and that’s why so many of these sorts of stories will feature numbers that, once truly understood, will create a situation where we reach some other higher level of consciousness or what-have-you. Fans of Heroes know how much Kring loves ideas of higher consciousness, and once one character in Touch starts babbling about how Jake isn’t actually autistic but, rather, an evolutionary next step, those fans would be forgiven for bailing. But the coincidence narrative appeals to someone like Kring because it allows him a way to do the deus ex machina while pretending human characters are the ones behind that god in the machine. But it’s the same thing. Zeus creates a miracle, or the numbers do. Same principle.

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That said, there’s a surprising amount of stuff to recommend in Touch, even as I can’t keep myself from making fun of it. The coincidence narrative, if done well enough, is satisfying on some visceral level, and this episode hits that pleasure button a number of times, particularly toward its climax. Kiefer Sutherland—playing Jake’s father, Martin—was a good choice for the lead, even if it seems he chose the part as the diametric opposite of Jack Bauer, so timid and weak-willed is this guy. The story is preposterous hokum, mostly involving the ways that Jake creates situations in which people can bump into each other just when they most need to and a perhaps-overly-complicated-but-satisfying B-story that follows a missing cell phone Martin finds as it journeys around the world, in a weird imitation of a film like Babel. (That the cell phone travels to Japan and the Middle East is probably no mistake.)

But that’s the thing, all the same. There aren’t characters or a plot here. There’s just a series of puzzle pieces that seem to be forming into something grander before our eyes, mostly fooling us from the fact that there’s really nothing behind the curtain. Are there affecting and effective moments here? Almost assuredly, particularly in the conclusion of a side-plot involving Titus Welliver as a man Martin keeps bumping into (and having fights with—if anybody is going to convincingly beat the shit out of Jack Bauer, it’s the Man in Black/Silas Adams). But there’s also a sense that this is all there is, that Kring came up with one super cool story again, then blew it all in the pilot, instead of over the course of a first season.

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And that’s what’s unfair about TV criticism, really. If this show came from Damon Lindelof or Shawn Ryan or Tim Minear or, hell, Amy Sherman-Palladino, if it came from someone who hadn’t utterly burned every bridge they had with TV fans, there’d be more anticipation in my heart for episode two. The pilot ends with a great cut to black where it’s possible to say, “I have no idea what episode two is, but I’m along for the ride!” But with Kring at the helm, I’m increasingly convinced that subsequent episodes will likely just repeat the basic story of the pilot, before everything collapses under its own weight. The story he’s chosen to tell here, one of interconnectivity and people reaching out across the void to talk to each other, isn’t a bad one, and the pilot does a good job of fitting it into 50 minutes (the episode has an extra-long running time), but there’s also the sense that all of this might have worked better in a 90 minute movie. It still would have been hokum, but it would have had you leaving the theater believing in its particular brand of magic just long enough to feel good on the way to the car.

Instead, we’re left with a good performance from a man who knows how to work well on the small screen, some intriguing additional elements, a mostly satisfying narrative (silly though it is), and a man calling the shots who’s grinning and saying, “Trust me,” while you have basically no idea where he’s going to go with this and no faith that he’s got the ability to deliver on whatever promise he has here. Add all that up with the uncomfortable nature of Jake’s condition—it’s not really autism, but the show leans so heavily on the tropes of autism that have been developed in entertainment over the years that the whole “many autistic people are just undiagnosed superheroes!” reveal leaves a very bad taste—and you’ve got a recipe for a show that gives good pilot but leaves basically no sense that it’s anything but an intriguing televised experiment.

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Ryan: As one scarred by Heroes, I went into Touch with more than a little trepidation. That’s incredibly unfair, but there you have it. Actually sitting down with Tim Kring’s new show definitely will give fans of his last show some serious flashbacks. Want a global scale? You got it. Feel like watching a lot of scenes featuring subtitles? This is will be your jam. Want to see a lot of potentially interesting ideas swept under the rug in favor of coincidence and happenstance? Come right this way.

Make no mistake: this is a schlocky show. But also know this is extremely well-made schlock. There’s a slickness to the proceedings that cannot be denied, and the ways in which various plot strands eventually connect is borders on clever. But while I admired the structure of the show, this show is almost entirely structure. Kring wants you to believe that he’s showing you the underpinning threads that connect us all, as part of his new desire to produce what he calls “social benefit storytelling.” But all he’s really doing is putting his script to the forefront of the proceedings.

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The idea of a globally connected story is interesting, and worth telling. If anything, television has gotten smaller in the years since Heroes reached its artistic acme, and having a story told on a global scale is refreshing. But the pilot of Touch reaches so far to make those connections that you can feel the sweat put into constructing these elaborate networks. What initially feels fresh ultimately turns groan-worthy, especially by the time three plots connect via one cellphone call.  Weirdly enough, had Kring started off smaller, there might have been more meat on this show’s bones. The ways in which Kiefer Sutherland keeps running into Titus Welliver might have been enough to hang this show’s hat upon. But in following a cell phone around the world, the show actually shows its limitations: after traversing the globe in just under an hour, where can this show go next?

Indeed, this feels less like the start of a long-running television show and rather like a truncated version of a film that M. Night Shyamalan just hadn’t gotten around to making yet. As a movie, Touch would have been entertaining, if forgettable. But as a television show, it favors structure over character in ways that have me worried about its long-term sustainability. The pilot sets the tone, but also establishes the limits, of Touch. I can’t help but feel I’ve already seen everything I’m going to see in this show after one episode. Sure, each episode will tease out another hidden connection between disparate humans. But that means Touch is, buried deep within the numerical equations of its narrative structure, a simple procedural. And where’s the benefit in that?

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