Can Walker be woke?
The reboot is a test of whether cop shows can work in a post-Black Lives Matter America
You know we've reached peak reboot culture when an executive somewhere greenlights a remake of Walker, Texas Ranger. The 1990s action crime procedural, starring sentient punchline Chuck Norris, is not exactly a show that people look back on with a wistful sigh of, "gee, they don't make TV like that anymore."
It's particularly gutsy — or just plain dumb? — to reboot a show that is best remembered for Norris roundhouse-kicking bad guys in slow-motion at a time when audiences are increasingly aware of, and disturbed by, police brutality and extrajudicial tactics in real life. Yet, despite being an incredibly unlikely candidate, the CW's reboot, Walker, actually manages to chart an imperfect — but promising — road forward for what cop shows might look like in a post-Black Lives Matter, post-#AbolishICE America.
During the original Walker, Texas Ranger's eight-season run, the show centered on Sergeant Cordell Walker (Norris), who spends most of his time brutally beating up bad guys, including cattle rustlers, drug traffickers, Japanese Yakuza, the evil spirit of a medicine man, and two separate bears. In one episode, Walker gets transported back in time to the 19th century by an Indian shaman. In another, he thwarts an assassination attempt on a Mexican presidential candidate by using a jetpack. Though Norris played the Texas Ranger with straight-faced seriousness, the show achieved cult-hit status for being unintentional comedic gold; Conan O'Brien even had an entire Late Night bit that involved reacting to its out-of-context scenes.
It doesn't take the 21st century lens of political correctness to be bothered by Walker, Texas Ranger, though. The series "would have been retrograde in 1972," panned one reviewer after watching the premiere in 1993. "The acting is wooden. The bad guys are drawn in the dimensions of cartoon characters. I'm not even going to start to talk about how it handles racial stereotypes. It celebrates vigilantism. There's violence and more violence." Another contemporaneous review criticized the glorification of Walker, who frequently acts outside of the law, including one particularly egregious scene in which he silences a foe who complains that he hasn't been read his Miranda rights with a jaw-breaking kick to the mouth. "Norris fans might find these stand-up-and-cheer scenarios, but it is this mentality that plants the seeds for Rodney King-type incidents," the 1993 reviewer reflected, using a now-dated reference that tragically has too many modern parallels to pick just one.
It would be reductive to say decades of shows like Walker, Texas Ranger are the sole reason we're in the situation we're in now, where police who use excessive or illegal tactics rarely face repercussions, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers perpetrate crimes against humanity under the blind eyes, or even with the encouragement, of their superiors. But many culture critics will point to the police procedural as glorifying violence, and centering law enforcement agents as the de facto "good guys" — even when they aren't. "TV has long had a police's-eye perspective that helps shape the way viewers see the world, prioritizing the victories and struggles of police over communities being policed," Kathryn VanArendonk wrote for Vulture last summer in one of several essential pieces to have addressed the topic in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement. For an example, you need look no further than Cordell Walker who, despite always being in the moral right, resorts to extrajudicial butt-kicking to get the job done.
The CW's reboot, simply called Walker, premiered on Thursday night and thus enters a fraught climate in which some critics have gone as far as to — convincingly in my eyes — call for cop movies and TV shows to stop being made at all. In Walker, Supernatural's chiseled Jared Padalecki plays the self-serious Texas Ranger, who shares the original character's preference for using his fists and asking questions later (he has a troubled backstory, involving a dead wife, to make his behavior come across as slightly less deranged). Walker also introduces a new character, Walker's police partner Micki Ramirez (Lindsey Morgan), who serves to signpost to the audience how we ought to feel about Walker's brand of justice. "I have a certain way of doing things," Walker tries to explain to her, after he's enjoyed fisticuffs a little too much with an assailant who attacked him first. Micki cuts him off: "And that way has got to evolve." Micki goes as far as to label the machismo that made Walker the hero of 10-year-olds everywhere in the '90s what it is: "jacka-- behavior."
The pilot of Walker also introduces a plotline involving undocumented immigrants, who are the parents of a friend of Walker's teenage daughter. After Walker's daughter and her Mexican-American friend get in trouble with the police, the girl's parents are in danger of being deported. Walker relays the story to Micki, who recognizes the situation and describes her mother's disgust that she pursued a career in law enforcement. "See? Who does the law protect?" Micki quotes her mother as saying. "Not us."
The casting of Morgan, who is half-Mexican, in the role as Walker's right-hand woman and fellow Ranger, is also significant. As historian Dr. John Morán González explained to The Texas Tribune, the "glorification of the Rangers," including by the classic Walker television series, was "built on a lot of blood" — despite being valorized today with team mascots and TV shows, the organization originally captured runaway enslaved Black people and massacred Mexicans. As Morgan put it during the CW's virtual press day, the Walker reboot isn't specifically a story "saying which side is right, but this is where we are and this is who we are, and what are we going to do about it next?"
The Walker reboot isn't flawless. Padalecki's Walker is unlikeable, perhaps unintentionally so — he's a bad dad on top of being a terrible cop. And Walker still risks complicity by centering a police officer who does things his own way, and often with his knuckles. Micki's complaints — as well as those by Walker's superior, who tells him firmly to knock off the over-enthusiastic tactics — will ring hollow if Walker doesn't actually end up on probation if he keeps up with the martial arts. But there's an opportunity for Walker to show what happens when you take the embellished television hero cop and put him in a world that reacts with the horror that such a character deserves. The result wouldn't be the comedy gold of Walker, Texas Ranger, that's for sure.
Only the pilot episode of Walker was provided to the press, so there's no telling how dark the CW is willing to go deeper into the season. But what had, at first glance, seemed like an ill-advised and even worse-timed reboot of a show that shoulders at least some of the historic responsibility of pro-cop propaganda, Walker has so far shown to be a little more complicated than it lets on in its logline. It might not be the right way forward for police shows — because there might not be a right way forward for police shows. Still, funny enough, if you're going to try, it turns out Cordell Walker isn't the worst place to start.