Ellen Gray: Fox tries a CBS trick with its new 'Touch'

Kiefer Sutherland (right) portrays the father of David Mazouz in the new show.
Kiefer Sutherland (right) portrays the father of David Mazouz in the new show. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Posted: January 25, 2012

* TOUCH. 9 tonight, Fox 29.

THERE ARE people who will be incredibly touched by "Touch," the story of a small mute boy (David Mazouz) whose mind grasps patterns in numbers he can't communicate but that could change our world, one connection at a time.

How I wish I were one of them.

Not only because I happen to like Kiefer Sutherland, whose portrayal of a single father struggling with a profoundly disabled son is touching and who, after Jack Bauer's relentless stoicism on "24," deserves to move his face.

I'm usually a sucker for shows that reach for more than a laugh or a guilty verdict, and if I insisted on having everything spelled out, I'd never have stuck with "Lost."

But Fox's newest drama, which gets a 67-minute, post-"American Idol" preview tonight before returning March 19 - when, in an enormous display of corporate connectivity, it will launch worldwide in some 100 countries - looks like someone tried to slip a CBS show into Fox clothing.

Indeed, "Touch" rushes in where "Touched by an Angel" might have feared to tread, lighting on the autism epidemic, the 9/11 attacks and the Mideast, all in the service of a format that networks, hoping to match the success of CBS, are desperate for: a show with an intriguing "mythology" that nevertheless wraps up each hour in a series of neat bows.

And, hey, who cares if the parents of kids on the autism spectrum, some already sweating proposed changes in the way the disorder is defined, are subjected to a scenario in which disability merely masks superpower?

Not that "Touch" creator Tim Kring, who also brought us the superhumans of "Heroes," is claiming either special powers or a clear diagnosis for the son, Jake Bohm.

"The show does not attempt to talk about autism," he told reporters earlier this month when I asked about the character, who, it's suggested, might be part of an elite group that's been misdiagnosed. (Shortly afterward, another of the show's producers described the efforts that went into helping Mazouz learn the mannerisms of someone with autism.)

As for Jake's apparent ability to predict lottery numbers and to manipulate cellphones remotely, "it's not a superpower idea. It's more of a mystical or spiritual idea," according to Kring.

"As storytellers, we want to sort of reserve the right to say that there is some other idea floating above it, something perhaps supernatural or spiritual . . . that allows us to tell the stories that we want to tell without having to be grounded in such reality," he said.

As a storyteller, Kring also reserves the right to an emotionally charged explanation for why Sutherland's Martin Bohm, once a "highly paid reporter" for a New York paper but more recently an airport-baggage handler, is living in a multimillion-dollar loft with his son (let's just say Jake shares more than one thing with Oskar, the also possibly autistic narrator of Jonathan Safran Foer's "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close").

Then there's Clea, the social worker played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who's intent on seeing Jake institutionalized for his and Martin's own good, a threat likely to seem laughable to people who might have to sue for the kind of services the state of New York seems determined to shove down Martin's throat.

Jake may not be able to communicate directly with his father, but he has no problem speaking with the audience, which hears him in voice-over. So we're way ahead of Martin, who needs guest star Danny Glover - in a bathrobe - to explain that Jake's a whiz kid who's stumbled on that old "Da Vinci Code" chestnut, the Fibonacci sequence. From there, it's off to the races for the former Jack Bauer, who'll get to see only small bits of the interlocking stories his son's trying to tell.

Like Fox Mulder (and Fox), I want to believe.

But for all its numbers wizardry, the overmanipulative "Touch" doesn't yet add up.


Send email to graye@phillynews.com.

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