David Mazouz, Kiefer Sutherland

Anyone who thinks TV isn't trying hard enough to raise the bar this midseason should check out tonight's most distinctive shows. With the official series launch of Fox's fantastical Touch (9/8c) and another fascinating episode of NBC's mystifying Awake (10/9c), I imagine some will maintain that they may be trying a little too hard.

It's probably fair to wonder if Fox is touched in the head for going forward with a show as out-there as Touch. This hasn't been an easy time for truly offbeat shows to gain traction, as risk-takers including Smash, The River and Awake have struggled in the ratings, with critics eager to point out their obvious flaws while often undervaluing the ambition it took to put them on in the first place.

Touch could buck that trend. The dazzling pilot episode was sampled by an impressive 12 million viewers in a January sneak peek. And with an American Idol lead-in on Thursdays, this emotionally uplifting and cosmically manipulative drama could defy skeptics as it unravels a weekly crazy quilt of seemingly random connections and miraculous global coincidences that percolate within an 11-year-old's preternaturally fecund mind.

"Sense? Is that what you're looking for?" scoffs a visionary guru (Danny Glover) as he counsels the boy's desperate father, Martin (Kiefer Sutherland in an affecting everyman about-face from 24's Jack Bauer). This single dad wants nothing more than to communicate with and make sense of his son Jake (David Mazouz), a mathematical savant who obsesses on numbers, refusing to speak and screaming when touched.

Jake's condition is a mask for a gift allowing him to divine mathematical patterns that predict threads of interconnectedness around the world. It's Martin's job and destiny to follow Jake's bizarre leads and make these numbers add up, hoping along the way to break through the boy's shell. (In next week's episode, Martin encounters a grown man who shares Jake's gift, and it's very poignant.) The more I watch, the more Jake reminds me of The Machine in Person of Interest. He's a device as much as a character, and while we may never truly understand how it all works, we're curious to see where it all leads.

There's a wondrously hypnotic quality to Touch's magical unrealism as we watch disparate stories converge each week, often with unashamedly sentimental results. Tonight's threads tie together a runaway dog, a prized baseball and a smattering of characters with serious father-child issues (not unlike Martin and Jake). Sometimes the reveals induce gasps, other times groans. But even when the mind goes "puh-leeze," the heart often finds itself touched and moved.

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Even more challenging and provocative, NBC's Awake delivers its best episode since the haunting pilot (also written by series creator Kyle Killen), putting aside questions of conspiracy/mythology for the moment — thankfully, as far as I'm concerned — to focus on the psychological impact of its hero's double dream life. Detective Michael Britten (Jason Isaacs, giving an achingly melancholy performance every bit as powerful as what Sutherland is doing on Touch) is feeling especially helpless in the "reality" where he's trying to connect with his emotionally distant son Rex (Dylan Minnette), who's acting out and pulling away. His shrink in RexWorld (Cherry Jones) nails the underlying issue: "You haven't truly accepted what he's experiencing. Do you believe your wife is dead?"

The answer, of course, is no, because Michael has been living between two worlds since a terrible car accident claimed his wife Hannah (Laura Allen) in one reality and Rex in the other. Every time he wakes up, he's with one or the other. As Jones puts it: "How can you expect to help your son with this loss when you're in denial over that same loss?"

His other doctor in HannahWorld (B.D. Wong) is even more confrontational, suggesting to Michael, "You've created different versions of everything in order to protect yourself from the discovery that this is reality. ... Every time the answers become real, you try to find ways to cover them up."

In this episode, the disorientation becomes even more palpable as the cases Michael is investigating in both worlds put him in contact with Rex's former babysitter. In one version, she's a successful investment banker; in the other, she's a strung-out actress on a downward spiral. We learn that, like Michael, she suffered a terrible personal loss, and her very different but "equally plausible" (in Michael's estimation) outcomes begs another question (courtesy of Jones): "So if you find it just as realistic that a tragedy can strengthen someone or destroy them, what I'm wondering is what you think makes it go in one direction or another?" That, it would seem, is the crux of Awake, and is the kind of existential conundrum that could keep a person awake at night.

COMEDY TONIGHT: On a much lighter but equally unconventional note, NBC's cult favorite Community (8/7c) continues its comeback, hoping to sustain last week's promising ratings, helped by the absence of The Big Bang Theory during the NCAA college basketball tournament. The insanity at Greendale Community College is in high gear as Jeff, on new anti-anxiety meds, finds his narcissistic ego running even more rampant, to Britta's dismay. (If you want a good belly laugh, tune in for Dean Pelton's reaction to Jeff's new aviator-glasses look.)

Meanwhile, Abed has so overindulged his habit of hiring celebrity impersonators that he's in serious debt to a guy who looks just like French Stewart (because he's played by French Stewart, naturally), and the study group rallies to settle the debt by attending a bar mitzvah in celebrity drag. Those jokes are way too good to spoil here. Let's just say they're all more credible than Katharine McPhee's pinch-hitting at a bar mitzvah on a recent episode of Smash.

Wrapping its brilliantly twisted third season, FX's animated spy spoof Archer (10/9c) is lost in space in the conclusion of a two-parter, with the universe's most childishly self-absorbed secret agent taking on mutineers aboard an international space station. This being FX, it's hardly a surprise when his combatively sexy sidekick Lana is reduced to going into battle in her underwear, more or less (mostly more) topless. Which prompts the reliably sexist Archer to wisecrack: "Bet you're glad we're in reduced gravity." To her outraged gasp, he adds, "Well, I didn't invent the ravages of time!"

Time is a cartoon's best friend, because the characters never have to age from season to season. Just ask The Simpsons. Archer is still relatively young in duration, but it's definitely young (though cold) at heart, with its inventive irreverence a hilariously nasty joy to behold.

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