Kiefer Sutherland gets in touch with his sensitive side

Will fans like him as a new age man who connects random people?

In touch with his sensitive side

Kelsey McNeal/FOX

You wouldn’t think a TV producer would need to redeem himself after creating two hit shows. But Tim Kring’s last creation was Heroes, which was only a hit for one season; by the end of its run, it was a critical and ratings punching bag, and media scholar Jason Mittell said it was “not remembered fondly.” Touch, Kring’s new supernatural drama premiering March 22, is best known as Kiefer Sutherland’s first show since 24. But for Kring, it’s also an attempt to hit the sweet spot his previous shows haven’t. Crossing Jordan, a mystery starring Jill Hennessy, was a long-running hit that got little critical attention. With Heroes he got the attention, but couldn’t sustain it. It was “a zeitgeist show that becomes really shiny and new and exciting,” Kring said, “and it’s hard to stay shiny and new.”

When Heroes’ success wore off, Kring didn’t make it easier on himself by his public statements, some of which were taken as evidence that he didn’t understand his own show. At one point he referred to live-TV viewers as “saps and dips–ts who can’t figure out how to watch it in a superior way.” Mittell recalls that Kring seemed ill-equipped to deal with “hard-core genre fans who were reading interviews and cared about his answers,” who “soured on his attitude of ‘don’t think too much about this.’ ” Kring himself feels that being a public figure is something he didn’t especially enjoy dealing with. “I didn’t want to be on the front end of things. I enjoyed being behind the scenes.”

That may be why it may be an advantage for Kring to work with Kiefer Sutherland on Touch. Playing a man who discovers that his seemingly autistic son actually has psychic powers, Sutherland not only brings a pre-existing audience to the show, he will also share some of the responsibility for its success or failure. “He’s been very interested in how the show runs in terms of efficiency and crew and the hiring of key people,” Kring says of Sutherland, who has an executive producer credit. “It’s been like found money for me. I’ve not only got the great star but I’ve got a partner on some of the logistical parts of making the show.” The mostly unknown ensemble cast of Heroes made Kring the lightning rod for all the viewers’ objections; Touch is as much Sutherland’s show as anyone’s.

It is also Kring’s attempt to split the difference between the format of Crossing Jordan, where most stories were wrapped up in an hour, and Heroes, one of the most Byzantine serialized shows since Lost. Like many creators of broadcast dramas, Kring doubts serials are a good business proposition these days. “A lot of these shows have not done well on network TV. On cable they still seem to do well because of the way cable can program them for limited runs.” So on Touch, he wanted “to create stand-alone episodes that had a beginning, middle and end, so people felt they could come in and out of the show and not feel that the train had gotten too far down the tracks without them.” He also thinks this might help avoid one of the objections to Heroes, that it created interesting characters with cool origin stories, and then didn’t do much with them. “I think the origin stories are much more interesting than the ongoing plot stories,” he notes. “I looked for a format where I could do that over and over and over again.”

If Touch succeeds, it will not only allow Kring to rebound from Heroes, it will allow him to revisit the themes he liked best. Mittell says Kring was most interested in “the new age-y connectedness, humanity-will-come-together stuff,” and that he concentrated a lot of his energy on voice-overs explaining those themes. Touch takes that idea and builds the whole show around it; Sutherland solves problems by connecting seemingly random people around the world. Kring says he has been obsessed by this ever since September 11, when “we realized the world was so much smaller than we thought.” Touch may be the test of whether the public is ready for Tim Kring’s philosophy in its pure, unadulterated form. That, Mittell says, and “whether 24 fans want to watch Kiefer Sutherland as a sensitive new age guy.”

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