Kiefer Sutherland Calls Touch an 'Unabashedly Emotional' Procedural With One Jack Bauer Tie-In

Rare is the television show that defies simple summation, but Fox’s Touch may be one of them.

On the surface, the drama (previewing Jan. 25, before officially bowing March 19) stars 24 vet Kiefer Sutherland as Martin Bohm, a widowed dad who struggles to communicate with his son Jake, an 11-year-old who lives with severe autism.

So difficult is it for Martin to get through to Jake – who is mute and won’t let anyone, his father included, touch him – that it calls into question whether the state should intervene. And just as they do, Jake’s inexplicable obsession with the number 318, in this instance, begins to manifest itself in strange ways, involving several people around the globe.

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For example, Martin’s altercation with a man (Lost‘s Titus Welliver) who is using a payphone that he himself needs to be on at 3:18 pm ultimately leads to the stranger saving kids from a crashed school bus that was numbered 318. Another thread to that story shows how a British man’s lost cell phone touches on a young boy in Iraq as well as a wannabe singer in Ireland.

The pacing of the Touch pilot is unhurried — in fact, for a stretch there many will wonder where it’s all possibly leading. But as the disparate pieces of narrative weave together and build to a payoff, the show strikes a chord of “global unity” that hasn’t been seen since, say, Heroes – not surprising since Tim Kring, the man who sired that superheroes saga, created Touch.

Explaining the project’s inspirational tone, Sutherland says he and Kring “both felt very strongly that one of the things missing from television — and I feel from films, as well — is being unabashedly emotional.”

First Look Video: Kiefer Sutherland’s Touch

Touch raises questions about how Jake latched onto 318 and saw patterns involving the number that no naked eye could have. And while that might seem to point toward the show having an ongoing mythology, that is not the case.

“Some characters will be woven over [multi-episode] arcs,” says Sutherland, “but Tim and I both learned – he from Heroes and me from 24 — that there is great value in a procedural drama. So every week there will be a set of circumstances set about by Jake that will put Martin in a situation to deal with someone new, and that situation will be resolved. There will be a beginning, a middle and an end, in theory, to every episode.”

Sutherland admits that at first he “really didn’t want to” take on Touch for his return to TV. But thanks to nudging by some people close to him, he revisited the project and saw both a “really beautiful” father/son relationship as well as a trait shared by Martin and one Jack Bauer.

“What I was drawn to [with] Jack Bauer was that he was never going to win,” says his portrayer. “He would have small victories, but overall it was impossible to win.” Martin, similarly, “is never going to win” as a father because he can’t communicate with his son the way he’d like to. “There’s something wonderful about trying to find hope in someone who is just never going to completely win.”

While Sutherland and David Mazouz (as Jake) are the only series regulars, Touch‘s recurring players at the start include Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Undercovers) as the social worker assigned to assess Jake’s home situation, and Danny Glover (Lethal Weapon) as a professor who sees in Jake evidence that autism is not a disability but a heightened ability. [UPDATE: Mbatha-Raw confirms for TVLine that she has since been upgraded to series regular status.]

“The Danny Glover character is interesting,” says Sutherland. “He believes that we have misdiagnosed a group of people that actually are at a much more advanced form of communication, but because we don’t understand it we’ve diagnosed them with what we can best understand.”

That exploration of what autism is and could be was born of the fact that Kring has a son who lives with the condition; as such, he’s taking care to see that Touch‘s fictional aspects are founded in scientific fact.

“Tim feels very responsible to stay true to [autism] in that regard,” says Sutherland, “so we’re not go to be making stuff up to explain stuff. We’re going to deal with the medicine and what doctors know.”