Touch me, babe

Look beyond shows about filthy hoarders, creepy toddlers and broken housewives!

Jan 25, 2012 at 12:00 am

I hear it from some imitation intellectual once a week; and I have grown sick of the refrain: "There's never anything to watch on television: I'd rather read a book."

Granted, not every series is PBS's Golden Globes winner Downton Abbey. And I certainly agree that four shows about hoarding, four more about filthy storage units, umpteen singing and cooking competitions and more housewives than you'll find at Wal-Mart pushes copycat-itis way past the bounds of overkill. However, to the notion that nothing on TV is worth your time or attention, I respectfully reply: Bull puckey.

Yes, I get paid to write about the stuff, so my opinion may be skewed. Then again, whose view should be more informed that somebody who's compelled to watch more TV than you? A good television critic provides value as an adviser, a barometer, much like your bibliophile friend might recommend a title you would enjoy. Tiara-wearing toddlers, Jersey jerks and Kardashian outbreaks snatch the bulk of entertainment headlines, but they are not the norm. There are a million books on Amazon: Think they're all worth reading?

In that spirit, allow me to hip you to two series arriving amid this dizzying blizzard of January TV, the so-called "winter season," that can only be described as extraordinary. First up is Kiefer Sutherland's return to FOX in the enthralling new drama Touch, unveiling a premiere "preview" after American Idol at 9 tonight (Channel 2 in Detroit) before nestling into 24's old slot at 9 p.m. Mondays March 19. Then, at 9 p.m. Sunday, sit back and behold the first starring TV role for Dustin Hoffman, topping an amazing cast on HBO's much-anticipated racetrack melodrama Luck.

Kiefer, we hardly recognize ye. It takes some Jack Bauer-sized cahones to return to television, much less the same network and time period, so soon after nine pulse-pounding seasons as one of TV's most unforgettable action heroes. But Sutherland said in LA this month he had no intention of tackling another series this quickly until someone sent him the script to Touch and "it spoke to me."

That's more than can be said for the 11-year-old son of his new character, Martin Bohm; young Jake, portrayed by doe-eyed newcomer David Mazouz, provides the show's voiceover, but we quickly learn we are hearing his thoughts. The emotionally challenged child has never spoken to anyone and doesn't communicate in any conventional way.

Martin, once a star journalist, has seen his career spiral downward since he became a widower and committed to care for Jake. When we meet him, he's working as an airport baggage handler. (And when we see him, in the act of defending Jake, take a withering punch to the stomach and not shoot anybody, we realize sensitive Martin doesn't know Jack.) A dismissive social worker (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Undercovers) insists Martin has lost all control of Jake and pushes him to institutionalize his mute son.

But Touch comes from Tim Kring, the showrunner who captivated primetime with Heroes, the NBC series about everyday people possessing phenomenal powers. The connecting thread is that Jake, for all his inwardness, has a superpower of sorts: an obsessive, intuitive mastery of numbers. In Martin's search for understanding, he finds a professor (a welcome Danny Glover sighting) who explains Jake is an "air traffic controller" for the inner connectivity that links all of us. "Your son sees everything: the past, the present, the future," the prof says. "It's a road map. Your job now, your purpose, is to follow it for him. It's your destiny."

Martin accepts the challenge, and witnesses how the bully who slugged him, a school bus full of children, a grieving father in London, a dutiful son in Baghdad and a hooker in Tokyo share an uncommon bond. Surely there will be much more globehopping and coincidences in future episodes: This is Numb3rs taken to a higher power. There's also an undercurrent of profound sadness in this show — "chronic sorrow," sociologists call it — but it's tempered by Martin's hope of discovering new pathways to his son. (Mazouz, who has either the easiest or toughest acting assignment on TV, does a marvelous job of projecting the universe of thoughts going on behind Jake's eyes.) 

The metaphysical nature of Touch may not be for everyone, but Sutherland is never uninteresting, the kid is great, and you wanted something on TV you'd never seen before: Here it is.

At HBO, where the proof that crime pays stretches well past The Sopranos, an unbelievable assemblage of Hollywood hierarchy has come together to deliver a contemporary companion piece to Boardwalk Empire. Luck is aptly named. It defines the collaboration between creative superegos Michael Mann (director) and David Milch (creator), whose reportedly contentious partnership has been the stuff of TMZ dispatches. And it explains how one show can attract — and I'm not one given to hyperbole — the greatest collection of pure acting talent in television history.

Filmed on location at LA's Santa Anita Park, the trackside setting serves as backdrop for a morality tale on the power and consequences of money. It centers around Hoffman, who as Chester "Ace" Bernstein, recently released from a three-year prison bid with scores to settle and grand visions in mind, has a role to match both his status and his ability. Bernstein is chauffeured and right-handed by Gus Demitriou (Dennis Farina), who serves as beard for the $2 million horse Bernstein has purchased, and Farina gives new energy and dimensions to the hackneyed sidekick role.

That's not all. There's Nick Nolte as an aging trainer, Jill Hennessy as the track veterinarian, Richard Kind as a jockey agent, John Ortiz (Mann's Miami Vice) as a legendary but unscrupulous trainer. Even the walk-on actors will make you exclaim, "Hey! I've seen that guy before!" In the important secondary plot, four railbird degenerates (Jason Gedrick, Ian Hart, Ritchie Coster and an Emmy-worthy Kevin Dunn) go in on a high-stakes "Pick Six" wager, then explore the depths of their trust.

Sunday's pilot is a bit of a slow build as its stable full of characters is introduced, but stay with it. By early in the second episode, Luck is racing at full gallop. It boasts superb acting, exciting races, magnificent steeds — and when's the last time you saw any bad production that had horses in it?