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New Fox series Touch can't overcome its mushy mysticism

On Touch (Fox, Global, 9 p.m.), there are two main characters. There is Martin Bohm (Kiefer Sutherland) a widower, and his young son, Jake (David Mazouz). Jake never speaks.

He does, however, provide the voice-over for the opening of each episode. He says, "I was born 4,168 days ago. ... I live on this planet with seven billion, 80 million, 360,000 other people." He continues to explain that, on most days, the average person will speak 2,250 words to 7.4 people. Also how many billions of e-mail and text messages will be sent during a day. He describes the world as "a giant mosaic of patterns and ratios." And he says, "Mathematical in design, these patterns are hidden in plain sight. ... Only some of us can see how the pieces fit together."

Jake is, of course, one of those people. "It's my job to keep track of those numbers, to make connections for those who need to find each other," he whispers. The boy hates to be touched and spends his existence writing down patterns of numbers. It's his dad's job to figure out how his gift can be used for good. This is actually an international task.

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On Thursday's episode (the pilot aired as a one-off in January, this is the season start), there's a soul-destroyed Russian loan shark and a grieving guy from India still trying to please his deceased father, who are somehow connected and in pain. Little Jake's job is to help his father find these people and heal their pain.

The show is created by Tim Kring, best known for Heroes, which also connected disparate souls in the world and required them to stave off evil. (You might remember the slogan from Heroes: "Save the cheerleader, save the world.") Talking to TV critics in L.A. in January, Kring talked about his intention with Touch: "To use archetypal narrative to create and promote a positive energy in the world."

That's a truly grand task and, frankly, it's a crock. It's a crock as big as planet Earth. It's not "mathematical in design," it's just a big pile of hooey. It is also the show's burden, one it cannot overcome. Here's this single dad of an apparently autistic child and they must instill kindness and reason in the population of the entire planet, one suffering soul at a time.

In a way, it is a gloriously good concept, imaginative, if a bit dorky. The viewer is required to think positively and abandon stereotypes in looking at others. For this to work smoothly, some of the clichés of TV storytelling must be abandoned, and they aren't in Touch. The genius of Jake and his great power is explained to Martin by an eccentric but wise old black man, played by Danny Glover. The ancient, wise African-American character is one huge cliché. There is also the post 9/11 context. Martin's wife died on that day and he abandoned his job as a journalist in despair. Now, with Jake, he is doing a more profound kind of truth-telling.

Put all of this together, add some tension about social workers wanting to remove Jake from his dad's care, and you've got a roiling stew of plot. The internationalism of Touch is admirable. The spirit of positivity likewise. But to truly buy into Touch, one has to ignore the mushy mysticism at its core and that's impossible for some viewers.

Kiefer Sutherland is excellent as Martin, fully inhabiting a man bewildered by his wife's passing and terrified of a silent son he doesn't really understand. When action sequences are required, he turns into a depressed but captivating Jack Bauer type who just wants to help people.

When Sutherland talked to critics in January, he said he had been trying to get away from his character from 24. "The character [of Martin Bohm] was so vastly different, and the tone of the piece was so vastly different that that was part of its appeal," he said. "I had to reread it a second time to make sure that all of the emotional components that I was reacting to so strongly were actually integral to me, as opposed to this perspective that I was trying to navigate away from 24."

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As a career move, Touch is excellent for Sutherland. It's just that the show sags under its highfalutin, corny mysticism. It's good TV, worth a look, beautifully made and solemn, but not great TV because it's just too soft and mushy.

All times ET. Check local listings.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More

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