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On the Set: Kiefer Sutherland Returns to TV in 'Touch'

Inside his trailer on the set of his new Fox series "Touch," Kiefer Sutherland can't stop thinking about numbers: 12,000,000... 318... 100...

"It boggles the mind," he says. "It's become a huge part of my life."

No, Sutherland hasn't become obsessed with patterns like his son on the show. "Touch" tells the story of Martin Bohm (Sutherland), a once promising journalist who's now a widower unloading baggage at JFK. His 11-year-old special-needs son, Jake (David Mazouz), scribbles strangely prescient numbers into notebooks but has never uttered a word. 

In each episode of the drama, Jake connects those numbers to seemingly unrelated people and situations all over the world in ways that totally freak out his dad and his social worker. Meanwhile, Jake loses it if anyone touches him or his book of numbers.

In real life, Sutherland has a better grip on the digits at hand: 12 million viewers watched the "Touch" preview that aired in January. The series, created by Tim Kring, the writer and producer behind "Heroes," launches for real with a global media event on March 18 — a date that figures prominently in Touch's opening episode. 

The premiere re-airs that week in more than 100 countries around the globe and on March 22 in the United States. The wait-and-see preview combined with a worldwide rollout makes it an unprecedented launch for TV. "I'm feeling nervous," Sutherland says, lighting a cigarette. "There's a lot riding on this, and I know what it means to have a hit show, certainly."

Which brings us to the most important number of all: "24." The actor's eight-season run as counterterrorism agent Jack Bauer transformed Sutherland from semi-reliable film-acting Hollywood offspring to one of the biggest TV stars of his time. "24" perfectly captured the insecurity and paranoia of the post-9/11 era, one ticking-time-bomb plot after another, and Sutherland became the face of American resilience across the planet.

Wrapping that series was "a mixture of mourning and 'thank God,'" Sutherland says now. He's wearing blue work clothes with a long-sleeve white shirt underneath and still looks as fit as he did back in his CTU days. "I don't believe we ever jumped the shark with '24.' It ended really well and I went, 'Whew.'"

Now he's back to holding his breath. Previewing "Touch" to impressive numbers got people talking, but not all that talk has been positive. The pilot got high marks for its gorgeous look and ingenious plot twists, like the fact that the seemingly autistic mute at the center of the drama is also the show's articulate narrator. "It's an awesome part for me," laughs Mazouz, the 11-year-old newcomer chosen from more than 30 young actors to play Jake. "I don't have to memorize any lines."

But viewers must take a few leaps to buy what Jake and the other characters are saying. When we first meet him, the kid is obsessing over the number 318, and soon 3-1-8 pops up everywhere — on clocks, winning lottery tickets, significant street addresses (enter guest star Danny Glover as the shut-in professor who explains Jake's role as highly evolved humanoid). As Jake climbs atop a telephone tower every day at 3:18, a wayward cellphone gets passed around the world, touching the lives of an Irish songstress, a British couple grieving for their dead daughter, an earnest kid in Baghdad. All those moving parts come together in ways so miraculous, you'd swear the script was touched by an iPhone-wielding angel.

Actually, it's trademark Kring. Just as the comic-book-inspired Heroes imbued seemingly ordinary people with extraordinary "gifts," "Touch" leans on cosmic conceits like interconnectivity and synchro-destiny. Eventhe show's actors find meaning where others might just see coincidence. "It's spooky — my best friend's birthday is on 3/18," says Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who plays Child Protective Services worker Clea Hopkins. "On set we call that a 'Touch moment.'"

Kring clearly has a big-picture plan for putting these themes on the air. "If we consider the ripple effect our lives have, it makes an impact on how we treat people, and that makes the world a better place," he says, sitting in his editing suite at Culver Studios in Los Angeles. He looks stressed for someone given to New Age musings, but that's because he has five episodes to lock. Plus, he's read the early reviews, which were decidedly mixed. One critic called the preview "likable but dumb." Kring is tweaking the show.

"We may not always tie up each episode as neatly as we did in the pilot," he says, adding that not all the stories will be uplifting or positive, and that "minor characters may emerge in one episode and then reappear down the line four or five episodes later."

Ultimately, says Sutherland, "'Touch' is a show about fate. And you never know what fate will deal you. It's sometimes scary, sometimes funny, sometimes dangerous, sometimes poignant. I guess you can say it's like making a television show."

For more on "Touch" and spring's hottest new shows, pick up this week's issue of TV Guide Magazine, on newsstands Thursday, March 1!

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