This mid-season, we're being asked repeatedly to take giant leaps of faith with shows that dare to be different, that refuse to settle for the same old TV formulas, despite all of the risk that entails. Risk is the operating principal behind shows like NBC's Smash (Feb. 6), a dazzling but dauntingly inside (theater) baseball look at the making of a Broadway musical. Ditto ABC's The River (Feb. 7), a terrifying supernatural quest into an exotic heart of darkness in the Amazon jungle that's not for the faint-hearted. Later in the season, not yet scheduled, NBC will offer up Awake, a gripping but grim psychological drama about a grieving man trapped between two possible dream worlds.
I've seen four episodes of Smash and five of The River, and am hooked and cautiously hopeful that they will find an audience willing to go on the ride — because really, why should cable have all the fun?
First, though, we have a sneak "preview event" of Fox's emotionally compelling but wildly fantastical and undeniably manipulative Touch (9/8c), which won't air regularly until March 19 (taking over after Alcatraz ends its tryout on Mondays). With only tonight's extended episode (running seven minutes past the hour) to judge from, it would be easy to scoff cynically at the global crazy quilt of coincidences that fuel Touch's high-concept premise. But as the connections become clear, linking desperate souls from Baghdad to Tokyo to Manhattan and beyond, the result is so stirring that even as the mind goes "puh-leeze," the heart finds itself truly touched.
The heart and soul of Touch is grounded in the tormented relationship between 9/11 widower Martin Bohm, an ordinary father (Kiefer Sutherland, in an effective and affecting about-face from 24's Jack Bauer), and his extraordinary son Jake (David Mazouz), a mathematical savant whose emotional remoteness has the appearance of autism — he never speaks and won't allow even his dad to touch him — but is actually a mask for a gift that allows the boy to divine patterns in numbers that predict threads of interconnectedness in "lives destined to touch." As 11-year-old Jake reveals in an introductory voice-over. "It's all predestined by mathematical probability, and it's my job to keep track of the numbers to make the connections for those who need to find each other, the ones whose lives need to touch."
Heavy-handed? You bet. (The mumbo-jumbo, seconded later in the episode by guest star Danny Glover, is reminiscent of those gassy monologues that opened many an episode of Heroes, which like Touch is the brainchild of creator Tim Kring.) Effective? Mostly yes, thanks to Sutherland's forcefully empathetic performance and a wide-ranging story that builds to multiple suspenseful and personal epiphanies.
"The kid is like clockwork," Martin is told as he fetches his runaway son from atop a cell tower, where Jake regularly visits (always at the same precise time) to obsessively scribble his numbers, which find echoes in cell-phone numbers, lottery tickets, calendar dates and, yes, clockwork. Cell phones (and one significant pay phone) are a major motif in this episode, especially a lost phone that finds its way all around the world, bringing together a grieving globe-trotting dad, an ambitious singer from Dublin, a Japanese prostitute and an Iraqi boy who wants to make people laugh but finds himself in a deadly serious bind. Is little Jake the puppet-master here or merely a dispassionate observer of the threads of fate?
Hard to say, but as these subplots incredibly converge, Martin begins to realize that following Jake's leads — sometimes putting him in direct contact with the cogs in this wheel of (mis)fortune — is the best hope for them to ever connect. The Touch pilot is an audacious hour of TV, but leaves us wondering how in the world they'll pull off something this wondrous on a weekly basis. Given Kring's well-documented troubles in maintaining Heroes over the long run, there's reason for doubt. But when a pilot this strong presents itself, also cause for celebration.
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THE LAST HURRAH: When last we saw Catherine Willows in the cliffhanger of last week's CSI, the first of a two-part swan song for Marg Helgenberger after 12 seasons, she was shot en route to escaping a home ambush, telling her boss (Ted Danson) as she climbs into his getaway vehicle, "I'll live." But can she survive what comes next? Find out on tonight's episode (10/9c), as the former showgirl leans on her underground connections (a strip joint as safe house) to stay off the radar of the persistent hit squad on her trail. Who's behind all the mayhem may come as a surprise, but not the unabashed open sentiment among her co-workers as they consider carrying on without their leading lady.
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