Last week, the CW television network announced that it’s developing Walker, a reimagining of the nineties series Walker, Texas Ranger, with Jared Padalecki in the title role. It’s the kind of showbiz news that triggers a wave of confusing emotions, not unlike being kicked through a car’s windshield.
For Padalecki, who’s also executive producing the show, it’s an obvious triumph, ensuring a cushy landing for the Supernatural star once that series wraps up in 2020. It’s a boon, too, for his ever-excitable fans, promising to keep them flush with GIFs and YouTube tribute montages for years to come. There’s some hometown pride mixed in there as well, not only for Padalecki, a San Antonio native and Austin resident, but also for the TV series that—along with Dallas, Friday Night Lights, and King of the Hill—remains one of our state’s most lasting contributions to the small screen. For better and worse.
On the other hand, Walker is a “reimagining” that seems to ignore what allowed the original to endure for eight seasons. For one, the fact that it won’t star Chuck Norris is clearly a loss. The original Walker, launched in 1993, leaned heavily on the stoic bruiser persona Norris had honed across two decades of films—and specifically from 1983’s Lone Wolf McQuade, which also found Norris playing a gruff ex-Marine and Texas Ranger with serious martial arts skills and the ends-justify-the-means moral code of a Wild West lawman. Norris was an Air Force veteran who fought and trained with Bruce Lee, collecting numerous black belts and opening his own chain of karate schools before launching a film career steeped in ass-kicking. Padalecki was a former high-school debate champion who earned his chops playing the “cute boy” on Gilmore Girls and in Olsen twins movies. While Padalecki has since gotten into some well-choreographed scrapes on Supernatural—and he can grow a decently grizzly beard—there is an undeniable gulf between the two. Walker, Texas Ranger was so clearly Chuck Norris: The TV Series, they even let him sing the theme song.
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Perhaps more importantly, this new Walker sounds decidedly gritty, in the parlance of so many modern, disappointing reboots. According to Deadline, Padalecki’s Walker will be a widower who returns to Austin after spending two years undercover. He has to reconnect with his estranged children while clashing with his conservative family, and he’s saddled with a new female partner with whom he must forge an uneasy relationship. Oh, and he’s also become “increasingly suspicious about the circumstances surrounding his wife’s death,” all of which sounds…fun? Deadline adds that the new Walker “will explore morality, family, and rediscovering our lost common ground,” rather lofty goals for a remake of a show that explored the myriad reasons why Chuck Norris might be compelled to kick you in the face.
A grim Walker reboot threatens to ignore one of the most salient aspects of the original, and the major reason why it lives on in syndication and your dad’s DVD collection: Walker, Texas Ranger is absolutely ludicrous. Although rarely intentionally comedic, it is nevertheless one of the funniest series in TV history, the alchemical blend of ambition and incompetence that begets the kind of surreal comedy any Adult Swim show can only thirst for, even when it’s a direct parody. It wasn’t just the excessive violence, every blow of which Walker luxuriated in—often repeated from multiple angles and rendered in enough slow motion that each hour-long episode would have run about fifteen minutes without it. Nor is it just the dialogue, which alternated between clunky exposition dumps, growled menace, and corny puns, nor the fact that Norris seems to visibly strain when talking to people he’s not supposed to hit. After all, these sorts of glorious imperfections are the stock-in-trade of all of Norris’s films, along with the entire B-movie lineage to which both they and Walker belong.
No, the thing that made the original Walker into something approaching dadaist art was its willingness—again, whether by design or accident—to lean fully into its absurdity. Sergeant Cordell Walker wasn’t just a Texas tough guy (albeit played by an Oklahoman). He was near-superhuman, capable of dispatching Mexican drug lords, Irish militants, Yakuza assassins, and even Gary Busey as easily as his near-weekly quota of escaped convicts. In addition to being a world champion kickboxer, Walker could ride a bucking bronco, pilot a helicopter, and drive a Formula One racing car, should the case-of-the-week call for it. He was a master of disguise, seamlessly slipping into undercover roles that could still accommodate his beard: truck driver, oil rig roughneck, high-school teacher, one of several hardened prisoners. And because he was part Cherokee, Walker could track anything, communicate with animals, and even sometimes talk to ghosts. In at least two separate episodes, Walker successfully fought a bear.
Because of these things, it would be tempting to classify Walker, Texas Ranger as knowing camp, were it not for the seriousness with which Norris approached it, or the show’s frequent and self-evident aspirations toward social commentary. Alongside episodes where Walker time-travels to the 1800s, or helps a young boy with telepathic powers, for example, Walker’s creators (among them future Crash director Paul Haggis) also had him tackling various public ills, including drug addiction, domestic abuse, elder abuse, pollution, homelessness, and the all-purpose threat of the internet. Naturally, these were given the same deft touch as anything you’d put in Chuck Norris’s hands—often leading to moments like the infamous episode where guest star Haley Joel Osment solemnly declares, “Walker told me I have AIDS.”
This clip—along with dozens of others—would eventually find new life as a recurring bit on Late Night With Conan O’Brien. In 2004, three years after Walker, Texas Ranger had wrapped, NBC purchased Universal, giving Late Night access to Universal’s entire TV library without demand for licensing fees. That’s when O’Brien first introduced his “Walker, Texas Ranger Lever,” a giant cartoonish switch that would cue up a random scene from the show, usually followed by O’Brien trying to make baffled sense of what he’d just watched. The lever became one of his most popular recurring bits; eventually Norris himself even showed up, sharing a clip in which he meets O’Brien backstage and (what else) kicks the crap out of him.
In addition to inspiring O’Brien to produce that aforementioned Adult Swim spoof, Eagleheart, the success of the Walker, Texas Ranger Lever spawned a cult following for the long-canceled show among college kids on the internet, the very scourge Walker had tried so hard to warn us about. Their in-jokes fed directly into the creation of “Chuck Norris Facts”—one of the first successful “memes,” before anyone had even heard that word—which served up endless hyperbolic factoids about Norris’s incredible toughness. (Sample: “Chuck Norris does not sleep. He waits.”) It would surely be a stretch to credit these things directly for 2006’s TV movie reunion, Walker, Texas Ranger: Trial By Fire. But it’s safe to say that all the jokes kept both Norris and the show in the public consciousness long after Walker had wrapped, giving it a legacy, however ironic, that extended well beyond its original fans. To this day, the show lives on in countless YouTube clips and things like the Walker, Texas Ranger Lever browser extension, which re-creates the Conan experience on any website, as well as DaBaby’s recent single and video “Walker, Texas Ranger,” in which the North Carolinian rapper dresses up like Norris and wreaks a comparably Herculean havoc.
In fact, it’s highly likely the CW’s revival wouldn’t even exist were it not for the way the internet has kept Walker alive, long after other deliciously bad ’90s shows have faded. After all, no one’s out here trying to reboot Lorenzo Lamas’s Renegade or Acapulco H.E.A.T. (at least, not yet). To disregard this, and approach Walker, Texas Ranger as some sort of sacred text, would be a fatal flaw. So here’s hoping that the new Walker isn’t nearly as dour and self-serious as these early reports suggest, and that it honors at least some of the batshit spirit of its predecessor. At the very least, it couldn’t hurt to make Padalecki fight a bear.