Before my parents' separation and eventual divorce, in the early 1990s, Chuck Norris played a relatively small role in my life. I knew who he was, of course—for an adolescent male with above-average TV-watching habits, Norris was an established, if minor, star in the action-hero firmament. Then came the post-divorce introduction of Weekends With Dad, the semimonthly carting off of my younger brother and me for marathon sessions of quality time. The three of us did what fathers and sons the world over do in these circumstances: We went to the movies, ate multiple fast-food meals a day, invented reasons to take long, time-killing drives around town, and zealously avoided talking about our feelings or looking each other square in the eye.
But our favorite method of awkward male bonding during that time was the television show Walker, Texas Ranger, which aired on CBS Saturday nights from 1993 to 2001. The hour-long drama starred Norris as Cordell Walker, a Lone Star lawman with a heart of gold and a body-breaking repertoire of martial-arts moves. With the aid of his partner, Jimmy Trivette—a former Dallas Cowboy who provided an analytical, gadget-loving foil to Walker's instinctive butt-kicking—the red-bearded Ranger rid Texas of a seemingly inexhaustible supply of drug lords, corrupt cops, escaped mental patients, homicidal teenagers, white-supremacist militias, and shadowy crime syndicates.
For our little island of strained family togetherness, Walker was a godsend. It was that rare piece of entertainment that managed to satisfy the tastes of a jaded teenager, his elementary-school-age brother, and their fortysomething father—not because it offered something different for each of us, but because it offered the exact same thing in spades: pure brainless escapism, unburdened by irony or pretensions to artistry or cultural relevance. From the first twang of the show's opening-credits theme song—performed, hilariously, by Norris himself, with his own multi-tracked backing vocals on the chorus—you knew you were on the verge of something special, a TV experience of splendid, sublime badness.
With last week's DVD release of the show's seventh season, the complete Walker, Texas Ranger is finally available for America's home-viewing pleasure. (Somewhat confusingly, this was actually the show's penultimate season; Paramount released the final season first, back in 2005, and has since been issuing the others in chronological order.) I took the opportunity to revisit this totem of my adolescence—which, despite its syndication on cable, I hadn't watched in years—to see whether I could account for its unique appeal. After all, there have been plenty of cheesy and unintentionally funny TV shows. What makes Walkerstand out?
Over the last few weeks, I sampled more than two dozen episodes from across the show's run, using the brief summaries on the DVD cases as a rough guide. They provided some tantalizing choices. Should I watch "Mustangs," which finds Walker "fighting for his life after he attempts to rescue a group of federally protected mustang horses from some unsavory ranchers"? Or "Livegirls.now," with the Rangers trying to "rescue Trivette's kidnapped girlfriend from the slave traders who plan to auction her on the Internet"? Or what about "Higher Power," in which "a child who is believed to be the reincarnation of a Buddhist monk is pursued by a past-life enemy"? As it turned out, I chose all of the above—but with 202 episodes on 51 discs, I still barely made a dent in the Walker oeuvre.
It was enough, however, to pick out a few key ingredients of the special Walker magic (and to get "The Eyes of the Ranger" stuck in my head for several excruciating days). My first observation was perhaps the most important: Even after all these years, Walker is highly watchable television. The show is frequently unbelievable, badly acted, and schmaltzy, but it is rarely boring. Episodes move at a brisk clip, jumping from ridiculous low-budget stunts and comical feel-good vignettes to extended bouts of hand-to-hand combat, which almost always conclude with Walker delivering his signature roundhouse kick to the villain's face. (Precision karate kicks are, apparently, the primary means of law enforcement in Texas.)
On top of this are occasional moments of sudden, vivid weirdness. The following clip, from the fourth season, is a good example. Here, a forensic scientist has recreated the face of a murder victim whose skull was discovered at a construction site.
OK, so it's not exactly Twin Peaks—but then Twin Peakswas trying to be unusual. Walkeris a run-of-the-mill action show that is constantly veering off into the bizarre. This is partly the result of crappy production values, but it's also the product of what appears to be a genuine naiveté on the part of the show's creators. Unlike many contemporary crime dramas, Walker never seems slick or calculating. It's trying; it really is. And the gap between the show's relatively humble aspirations (Walker recognizes the face of the murdered boy) and its ham-fisted execution (we are treated to a series of long, slow zooms as Walker stares at a garishly-painted dummy head) is strangely charming. (Conan O'Brien took advantage of the show's weirdness with his Late Night skit The Walker, Texas Ranger Lever, which played some of the show's silliest and strangest scenes to delighted audiences.)
Like a lot of so-bad-it's-good television, part of the fun of watching Walker comes from its repetition of certain show-specific tropes. The previous clip is from one of several episodes that centers on Walker's American Indian heritage. Walker, you see, is part Cherokee—as is Norris himself—and hence possesses an intense connection with animals, uncanny tracking skills, and the ability to tap into a range of paranormal activity. (In one episode, for instance, the ghost of a murdered boy leads him to clues about the crime.) Other fallback situations include Walker rescuing the pretty blond assistant district attorney from kidnappers; Walker and Trivette confronting social ills like homelessness, childhood AIDS, and racism (note: One of the show's creators was Paul Haggis, of Crash fame); and Walker going undercover as a high-school principal or teacher to gather evidence on drug dealers or gang-bangers—and, in the process, teaching the other students a lesson about standing up for what's right, often with the aid of some impromptu martial-arts instruction.
And, of course, there's the most crucial recurring element of all: the aforementioned roundhouse kick to the face, a Norris trademark that dates back to his earliest film appearances (notably his face-off with Bruce Lee in 1973's Return of the Dragon.) In later seasons, these roundhouse-kick moments grew increasingly baroque, played and replayed from multiple angles in loving slow-motion.
But what finally set Walker apart on my recent viewing spree were the quieter moments—and, in particular, what appears to be Walker/Norris's profound, almost existential discomfort with the simplest human interactions. Norris is at home only in action; in quotidian situations—answering the phone, kidding around with his partner—he seems totally at sea. This goes beyond mere bad acting; at times, Norris is fundamentally unconvincing as a human being. It's riveting. My favorite example comes in the third season. In what should be a simple, plot-advancing conversation with a psychiatrist character, Norris's attempt to look serious and concerned comes across, instead, as bewildered terror. With the camera tight on his face, his auburn beard and bangs framing his eyes, Norris momentarily looks less like a decisive Texas Ranger than a confused golden retriever.
No wonder we loved this show! If the purpose of drama is to provoke terror and pity in order to relieve those emotions in the audience, then Walker provided the ultimate catharsis for our band of fragile male egos. No matter how inept and uncomfortable we felt, we could never be as bad-off as this. For us, the lesson of Walker, Texas Ranger was not that justice always prevails, or that the world needs heroes, or that the discipline and self-control of the martial arts promote clean living, but something much more basic and comforting: You could be doing a lot worse.