When the original Walker, Texas Ranger debuted in 1993, it became an immediate hit within the key demographic of my best friend’s dad. A limited connoisseur of television, he had a viewing palette consisting primarily of COPS and America’s Funniest Home Videos; he loved seeing a perp chased and tackled as much as he loved a good kick to the crotch. So when a show finally came along that combined the best of both—marrying the binary sense of morality of the former to the grievous injuries of the latter—he was in prime-time heaven. Ensconced behind his TV tray, he drank his beer, smoked his Marlboros, and howled as Chuck Norris’s boots sent cartel gangsters, cattle rustlers, and assorted kidnappers through window after window after window. As far as he was concerned, Walker, Texas Ranger represented the apex of Western art.
It was easy to say with certainty who that Walker, Texas Ranger was for. It was for my friend’s dad, along with anyone else raised on John Wayne and Joe Don Baker movies. That Walker also grew out of the ’roids-and-Reagan culture of the eighties, when American exceptionalism manifested itself in action flicks served up in thick clamshell VHS tapes, starring muscle-bound, denim-clad stoics who stomped old-fashioned conservative values into uppity punks both foreign and domestic. The original Walker found Norris playing, essentially, a character in a Chuck Norris movie. He was a no-nonsense lone wolf—Walker was basically a TV riff on Norris’s very similar 1983 effort, Lone Wolf McQuade—and an exceptionally principled cop, a man of military discipline and martial arts expertise who fights only when it is absolutely necessary, which is once every eighteen minutes or so.
Late into Walker’s original run, thanks to Conan O’Brien and the burgeoning internet, all of these same qualities made Chuck Norris and his show into a proto-meme, which garnered it a new following among stoned college kids who enjoyed Walker ironically, snickering at its gratuitously slow-motion fight scenes and face-smashes replayed from multiple angles, as well as its clumsy attempts at social commentary. Walker wasn’t high art to either of these groups, but it was fun. The original series lasted for eight seasons and two hundred episodes—twice the run of Mad Men—and that’s a milestone you don’t achieve without knowing exactly what your show is and who it’s for.
I have no idea who this new Walker is for. Starring Supernatural heartthrob and San Antonio native Jared Padalecki, the CW’s new reboot premiered last week. Much like Padalecki’s scruffy half-beard, the show bears little more than a superficial resemblance to its predecessor. Yes, Padalecki plays another guy named Cordell Walker (no relation), and he’s another tough-guy military vet who works for the Texas Ranger Division, this time out of its Austin headquarters. But this Walker is far from a lone wolf. In fact, the main conflict of the series is that Walker has way too many family obligations to ever get any work done. When we meet him, he’s returning from a yearlong undercover mission and reluctantly reuniting with his estranged family: his artsy and underappreciated teenage son; his angsty, disobedient teenage daughter; his brother, a gay assistant district attorney (who manages to convey both those attributes in a single breath); his loving yet overbearing and generally unimpressed parents. And that’s to say nothing of Walker’s professional and social circles, which include his new, mismatched partner, his former partner turned unsympathetic boss, and assorted mentors, friends, and admirers. All of them crowd in on Walker’s time, giving him constant grief about the demands of his job and making it all but impossible to do any Texas Ranger–ing.
Walker’s biggest obstacle is his wife, Emily (played by Padalecki’s real-life spouse, Genevieve Padalecki), a character who is killed within the first few minutes of the pilot, yet continues to haunt his every waking moment—occasionally literally. When Walker isn’t gazing tearfully at her smiling, soft-filtered apparition as she beckons to him from across myriad fields and gazebos, he’s tearily agonizing over her still-unsolved murder, or bemoaning the fact that she alone knew how to parent their equally tormented kids. Meanwhile, everyone around Walker just can’t stop bringing her up to him, even complete strangers. One suspect actually greets Walker with a casual, “You the Ranger with the dead wife?” which is about as good a summary of this show as any. If this series ever reaches the point where Padalecki gets to sing his own theme song, a la Chuck Norris, they should just put it in the lyrics: When you’re in Texas look behind you / ’Cause that’s where the Ranger’s gonna be / Mournin’ his dead wife.
Suffice it to say, this Walker spends so much time beating himself up, he barely gets the chance to whale on anyone else. The first episode is half over before Walker throws a single punch, and this leaves him with a nasty cut necessitating both stitches and a stern dressing-down from his new partner, who reprimands Walker over his reputation, as yet undemonstrated, for “always breaking the rules.” In some of the teasers for future episodes, we see Walker engage in some wrasslin’, a high-speed car chase, and even a scene where he lassoes a criminal from horseback. So there’s still a chance that he’ll blossom into the two-fisted renegade everyone already seems to think he is, the kind you might expect from the Walker, Texas Ranger legacy. But so far, this Walker is, by design, less action adventure than earnest family drama, an endless procession of heart-to-hearts that’s interrupted by the occasional heroin bust. As Padalecki himself has said, “It’s almost more like Gilmore Girls” than like his most recent series, Supernatural—or that show where Chuck Norris only talked to people after he’d exhausted all avenues toward hitting them.
So again, who is this Walker for, anyway? In all those recent interviews, it’s pretty clear that Padalecki’s motivation for remaking this show was about a marriage of several conveniences. He’s talked about how the original Walker was just “part of growing up in Texas” and how, while not a “superfan,” he still saw “most of” the episodes. Yet Padalecki also admits that he more or less stumbled into this by setting out to work with Everwood and Dawson’s Creek writer Anna Fricke, who already had a deal with Walker’s original home at CBS. He’s also suggested that the concept is partly inspired by a story he read about an officer who refused to detain a three-year-old at the Mexican border—which would be a valid jumping-off point for a show about the charged landscape of modern Texas law enforcement. But so far, at least, the series has mostly played lip service to this tension through Walker’s conflicted Mexican American partner, Micki Ramirez (capably portrayed by Houston-born Lindsey Morgan, of The 100). And more than any other reason, it seems, Padalecki may have just really wanted to do a show in Austin, near his ranch and his bar, and rebooting Walker, Texas Ranger was probably an easier sell than something original. In other words, this Walker is mostly for Jared Padalecki.
All that said, there are a few other people who might enjoy it too. If you live in Austin—or you’re glancingly familiar with its whole “deal”—you might relish seeing the many familiar shots of the Texas Capitol, or of Congress Avenue leading up to the Capitol, or of Padalecki eating at food trucks on Congress Avenue, just south of the Capitol, etc. Walker boasts a bevy of locally shot B-roll that—along with an obligatory honky-tonk scene, where Padalecki does some two-stepping—makes it feel at least as authentically lived in as 9-1-1: Lone Star. And while Lone Star does a better job of documenting the many life-threatening barbecue-related mishaps we Texans must face every day, Walker deserves extra credit for being slightly more subtle with its shoutouts to Lady Bird Lake (not Town Lake!) and its sly Round Rock Donuts cameos (even if this suggests that someone from Walker’s office makes a forty-minute round trip just for doughnuts). The camera also clearly loves watching Padalecki languorously don a cowboy hat, so much so that the shot made it into the show’s opening title. At one point, Walker also puts on a thermal henley and blue jeans and goes for a run—you know, just like Texans do.
These more superficial qualities bring us, of course, to the show’s other likely target audience: Jared Padalecki stans, who remain one of the most dedicated and active fan bases on social media, and who will presumably find plenty here in Padalecki’s cowboy cosplay to swoon and make GIFs over. Walker is already the CW’s most-watched series premiere in five years, meaning it’s successfully captured his Supernatural following and potentially brought in others as well—and there’s every reason to believe that the notoriously cancellation-averse network will issue it a full pickup and second-season renewal any day now. This, combined with Padalecki’s understandable desire to cut down on his commute, suggests the Walker reboot could enjoy its own venerable run, even if it seems less likely that its later years may see Walker talking to ghosts or traveling through time. That would surely disappoint my friend’s dad, God bless him, as well as any other O.G. Walker, Texas Ranger fan who works hard, pays his taxes, and just wants to watch Chuck Norris break somebody’s nose. But maybe eventually, this Walker can outgrow that inspiration to become his own, weepier man.