After last week's disaster, Touch really had nowhere to go but up. And yesterday's episode was a definite improvement, reining in the hokey coincidences and hinting at a way to turn its themes of interconnectivity into a mildly interesting show.

I'm not here to bury Touch, but I'm not exactly here to praise it either. "Safety in Numbers" is a much, much better hour of television than last week's "1+1=3", but it's much in the same way that a C+ is a much, much better grade than a D-. I'm still far from convinced there's a good ongoing show to be salvaged from all this, but on its own terms, this was probably the clearest, most entertaining attempt yet to articulate just what the hell creator Tim Kring is going on about.

"Safety in Numbers" finds Kiefer Sutherland's Martin Bohm on the trail of a class-action lawsuit between a big investment firm and some screwed-over investors. Martin encounters a man who sees the universe's numbers and patterns just like his son Jake does — the fact that he appears to be a mentally ill drifter can't be an encouraging sign for Martin. Meanwhile, Jake's social worker Clea almost reconnects with her schizophrenic mother, a woman gets stood up at a massive dance competition at Coachella, and a woman in a South African village tries to put a stop to a neighbor's horrific domestic abuse.

What this episode gets right, I think, is that it opens up the show's premise so that it's more than Kiefer Sutherland looking befuddled and yelling, "Jake!" a lot. (Though don't worry - both of those are still there in spades.) There's an interesting moment at the beginning where Danny Glover's Arthur Tiller tells Martin that these numbers represent disturbances in the patterns of the universe, and this disorder actually causes Jake and others like him physical pain. In the context of the scene, it's mostly just there to make it clear that Martin must keep pursuing the numbers — something the two characters rather irritatingly rehash about three times in one conversation — but it puts a more human complexion on what has previously been a way too abstract concept. There are prices to pay for being a conduit of the universe, even beyond the whole mental illness thing.


Speaking of which, I think the other thing this episode gets right is Walter King, the homeless man who shares Jake's gift. He calls himself the Invisible Prince, talks about his "rounds", and goes on a lengthy diatribe about slaying dragons and magic swords, which ends with the fun rejoinder to Martin, "You don't know much about magic swords, do you? I can't even touch it!" It's interesting seeing a person similar to Jake try to conceptualize his abilities, and I kind of like how it hints at a whole word of similar people acting as a sort of existential watchmen, quietly patrolling their territories to keep the universe on the right track. I'm not sure that idea would make for a good show either — but at least the Walter King business manages to deepen the world of Touch in ways I haven't really seen in the previous two episodes. I wouldn't call it good, exactly, but at least it was all pleasantly mediocre.

The only problem with all that is, I can't shake the feeling that I essentially just called for a reboot of the show. Martin following around Walter King in this episode is way more interesting and compelling than Martin following around Jake in the previous episode, and a lot of that is because a character who can actually talk — even if it's just in riddles — and emote is way more interesting than a mute character with no apparent emotions. Martin is still ludicrously slow on the uptake — seriously, this guy used to be a reporter? — and it would be nice to see him start working out what's going on without multiple background characters spouting exposition at him, but I could see an existential detective show with a character like Walter King and a slightly smarter Martin Bohm being decently entertaining. Of course... that isn't the show we'll be watching next week, but I'm just going to ignore that sad fact for now.

The other thing this episode episode did well was wind back the contrived connections. The whole South Africa subplot only tangentially connects to anything going on in the rest of the episode, particularly the woman finally standing up to her violent neighbor. Honestly, I'm OK with this, because it connects in a way that is more — and I never thought I'd get to use these words when talking about Touch — subtle and even a bit elegant, as what it really does is dig into the theme of cooperation Jake discusses in his voiceover. The storytelling is still rote and the characters are still one-dimensional, but this little human drama gets to the whole interconnected idea way better than last week's silliness about loose dogs and baseball stadiums.


Finally, what works in this episode's favor is its moderate serialization. The two young Japanese women we saw in the previous two episodes are back again, as is that cell phone from the pilot, and it's the main thread that draws in the whole Coachella subplot. Whatever is going on with Clea's mom is also officially an ongoing mystery, though I'd guess we're headed to the big reveal that her seemingly schizophrenic mother is actually seeing numbers just like Jake and Walter. The feeling that we're not seeing the whole mystery helps the world feel a bit deeper than it otherwise would.

Of course, the other benefit of serialization on a show like Touch is that it stops me from making a final judgment until I see the resolution — which means I can't be disappointed yet. As is probably abundantly clear, I am not even remotely ready to trust that this show knows what it's doing — but I'll admit I didn't expect the third episode to be even close to this inoffensive. That may be very faint praise, but it's still praise.