By the Numbers: A Review of Touch
- Tuesday, March 27, 2012
There's a scene in the Charlie Sheen comedy Hot Shots that takes place in an air force barracks. The haughty pilot, Kent Gregory, refuses to shake Topper Harley's hand:
Kent: The man your father's recklessness killed...was my father.
Wash Out: This is an incredible coincidence...but the hunter who mistakenly killed your father [shows family photo] was my father, Henry Pfaffenbach.
Kowalski: Henry Pfaffenbach was your father? My mother was a Pfaffenbach!
Squadron Member: Not Doreen Pfaffenbach? From Minnesota? Then we're cousins. We used to spend our summers in Eagle River!
Whole Squadron: Eagle River!?
I flashed back on this scene—a send-up of script contrivance--as I watched the climax of the second episode of Fox's new series, Touch. The idea that we're all groping for the ties that bind us together has often been parodied. My big worry about Touch is how close it skates to the edge of self-caricature in this regard. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
The principals are an autistic eleven-year-old named Jake (David Mazouz ) and his widowed father, Martin Bohm (Keifer Sutherland). Jake, who's never spoken, is obsessed with numbers. Somehow, he's able to see in those numbers the patterns of life's myriad connections. As an old professor (Danny Glover) explains, Jake sees the deviations in these patterns, a "cosmic pain that has to be healed." His father Martin becomes the mute boy's instrument of intervention and healing.
How does this work? [Warning: Spoilers ahead.] In the second episode, Jake's numerology leads his dad to a pawn shop owner who's in some unnamed trouble. Meanwhile, a dog bound for Russia escapes its airline crate and runs away. Fearing for her job, a female airline employee goes off in search of the dog. She meets a young Indian who has trekked thousands of miles with his deceased father's ashes to scatter them in a ballpark. The woman accompanies him to the ballpark, but abandons him to chase the dog which appears there.
Meanwhile, Martin has stopped a robber from killing the pawn shop owner. The robber is in deep hock to a Russian gangster. What the robber doesn't realize, however, is that the gangster is a family man who's sent a dog to his beloved son. Having learned to his horror that his father is reported to be a bad man, the boy calls his dad--just as Pop is about to pop the man in hock.
Meanwhile (there are lots of "meanwhiles" in this series), over on Suicide Bridge, Martin is struggling to keep the pawn shop owner from throwing himself into the river. Nobody cares whether he lives or dies. At that moment, what should show up but the dog...followed by the woman, who, lo and behold, turns out to be the old man's estranged daughter!
It was at this point that I rolled my eyes and thought of Charlie Sheen in better days. I'm sure that was not the intent of the producer, Tim Kring, who also wrote this episode (Pop culture fans will immediately recognize the name of the father of that phenomenon-turned-shipwreck, Heroes). Indeed, the aims of the show are high. In a day when the world seems increasingly shattered, fraught with alienation and filled with people starving for meaningful human contact, Kring's series should create frisson in viewers.
The emotional anchor of Touch, who keeps the show from looking like a mere string of contrivances, is Keifer Sutherland. Nobody plays "driven" better than the former Jack Bauer of 24. Bauer, though wounded and scarred in the service of his country, nevertheless seemed superhuman at times. As Martin Bohm, who lost his wife in the 9/11 attack, a former journalist reduced to handling baggage at an airport, whose mute son can't bear to be touched, Sutherland is more Everyman than Superman.
His son habitually wanders away from school and into danger, thus landing on Child Services' radar. With Jake about to be torn away from him by a benign but determined social worker (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), Sutherland registers the quiet desperation of a man at the end of his rope. His discovery of the strange gift his son possesses can't have come at a better time. A new bond is forged between father and son and Martin finds a new purpose for living.
At this writing, the supporting cast members have yet to come into their own. I'm looking forward to seeing more of Danny Glover. As the eccentric Professor Arthur Teller, an expert in the field Martin has stumbled into, the likeable Glover has a chance to create a character as endearing as Walter Nichols in Fringe. I expect that, before long, Gugu Mbatha-Law's social worker will give up her initial uneasiness and become more of an ally. As I understand it, eventually, Martin will become aware of what every father of nascent super-heroes fears--unscrupulous types seeking to exploit his offspring's abilities.
Though Kring's Heroes failed, collapsing under the weight of too many characters, the super-hero motif remains strong. It just has less and less to do with capes and costumes. This time, the hero's task is not so much to keep villains from conquering the world (so far, at least), but rather to bind disparate, desperate people, human threads hanging from the tapestry of life, together, to help them see that their lives are significant.
Although the show smacks of pantheism—the belief that the universe is God—it nevertheless speaks to the individual's craving for meaning, purpose, and hope. "Nobody cares if I live or die!" cries the estranged pawn shop owner. "I care!" replies Martin Bohm. On one level, Martin is but a lonely father seeking only to communicate with his son. As such, he, like the rest of us, is not the Hero but just another victim of life. On another level, however, Martin Bohm is a Christ-figure, a wounded stranger whose wounds bring strangers together. His mission—to help people find meaning—is that of the body of Christ on earth.
Whether Touch can become more disciplined in its approach, relying less on multiple contrivances and emotion, remains to be seen. Whether the church can help people touch God and one another remains a challenge as well.
*This Review First Published 3/27/2012
**Watch Touch Thursadys on Fox
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