Tuesday, January 24, 2012

New Fox drama is a "Touch" manipulative, but entertaining

Does Kiefer Sutherland have a lot of anger issues? I only ask because the former "Young Gun" rocketed back to stardom playing rage-spewing terrorist fighter Jack Bauer on "24" and, in the first few scenes of his new Fox drama "Touch," he also yells, says "Dammit" and generally act pissed.
But, ultimately, the new series, which has a sneak preview Wednesday at 9 p.m. (it will start its regular run in March) offers a kinder, gentler Kiefer.

He plays Martin, a widower whose wife died in 9/11 (side note -- could you ever have predicted that the guy from "The Lost Boys" would end up being the poster boy of the post-9/11 era?). He has a young son, Jake (David Mazouz) who doesn't speak and is diagnosed as autistic. Is he autistic? The show's pilot seems to argue that he's misdiagnosed. He does have a penchant for cell towers and for scribbling numbers in his notebook. Martin starts to figure out that Jake sees patterns, and that the numbers are predicting events. Will Jack, er, Martin, figure out the pattern in time to prevent tragedy? Well, I won't spoil it. I will say that the show's pilot was a bit more complex and emotionally affecting than I predicted. Jake's "pattern" leads to events that I really didn't see coming. And while the subplot about a group of seemingly disparate people all connected by a cell phone that passes through each of their hands was a bit silly it, too, came to a satisfying conclusion.
This would all make the show seem promising, except it comes from Tim Kring, whose previous outing was "Heroes." Ah, "Heroes" -- the NBC show with the excellent pilot and mostly-good freshman season that quickly realized it had no idea where it was going and disappeared up its own rear end. I ditched that show in the middle of that season, but heard tell of a fourth season in which Robert "T-Bag" Knepper played the leader of a group of carnies.
I worry that, for all its promise, "Touch" could also crumble beneath the weight of its own ambition. I'm sure many people will also be put off by the fact that this is yet another piece of fiction in which someone with special needs is portrayed as "magical." The nature of his needs is somewhat undefined, but this is a hackneyed and somewhat offensive device that probably should be retired.
Still, I'll admit to liking the pilot of "Touch." Despite his Jack Bauer-y opening scenes, Sutherland ultimately does deliver a moving performance. There's a moment near the pilot's end where he's reacting to a phone message and he conveys a wealth of emotions -- heartbreak, understanding, relief -- through facial expression alone. He might not be doing anything we've not seen him do before, but he's still good.
There's also decent guest performances by Titus Welliver as a mysterious lottery player and Danny Glover as an eccentric scientist. So far, I have hope for "Touch." It might be misplaced, but only time will tell.
Public service announcement: So, back in December, I reviewed the pilot of HBO's horse-racing drama "Luck" when it sneak-previewed after the season finale of "Boardwalk Empire." The show has its regular premiere Sunday at 9 p.m. I've since watched the whole season and can tell you that I really liked it. I'll hopefully get to discuss it more in the coming weeks, but suffice it to say that, while I found the pilot dense and over-stuffed (if fairly compelling), I liked the subsequent episodes a lot. Where the pilot was busy throwing a bunch of characters and ideas at us, the later episodes are more relaxed and accessible to those who aren't racing junkies. There's enormous talent here behind and in front of the camera. Director Michael Mann and TV impresario David Milch are the creative forces behind it, and it stars Dustin Hoffman, Nick Nolte, Dennis Farina and many, many other familiar faces (including the underrated Jon Ortiz as a Peruvian horse trainer). It's a strong show and I'm hoping that those who missed the pilot (or who saw it and didn't love it) give the show a chance.

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