The CBS drama “Walker, Texas Ranger” — co-created by eventual Oscar-winner Paul Haggis and airing from 1993 to 2001 — was foundational to the myth of Chuck Norris. Sure, the actor had been in plenty of martial arts films before, but the idea of Norris as all-powerful that flourished in corny online jokes was nourished by hundreds of weekly episodes depicting hand-to-hand combat as the tool of justice in the Lone Star State.
It was a formula that would seem to resist modernization, both because its earnestness is out of vogue in cynical times and because this is an especially precarious moment to launch a big-tent show anchored in the world of law enforcement. And “Walker,” the CW’s reboot starring Jared Padalecki, seems in its pilot trapped between old and new, between simply being an old-school network drama (a reasonable, if challenging, goal) and commenting on police-show tropes. Its first outing seems unsteady and uncertain, surprisingly so for a franchise that has historically traded on certitude.
Here, Padalecki’s Cordell Walker is haunted by memories of his late wife (shown in flashback and played by the actor’s real wife Genevieve Padalecki). After disappearing to go on a yearslong undercover mission, Walker returns home to find his family, now led by his brother (Keegan Allen), having grown scar tissue around the place both parents once occupied. His son (Kale Culley) and especially his daughter (Violet Brinson) seem somewhat resistant to welcoming him back. Their resistance is bolstered by Walker’s own vagueness and absence, lost both at home and at work. There, he’s teamed with a new partner (Lindsey Morgan), a rare woman among the Ranger corps, who finds herself somewhat taken aback at Walker’s turn to violence when provoked.
If the pilot’s family scenes feel somewhat directionless, the work scenes feel incoherent. Walker savagely beats a suspect who slanders his late wife and who strikes first. It’s a burst of emotion made physical that the show presents as relatably as conceivably possible under the circumstances. But it is, still, a moment of ugliness whose ramifications “Walker” isn’t built to bear. Elsewhere, as if attempting a karmic offset, Walker is shown to be deeply concerned with the possibility that the parents of his daughter’s friend might be deported. That he seeks to protect them by using the mechanisms of the law can’t erase the nastiness of what came before.
The show is obviously working to complicate Walker, but it isn’t pitched at a level where complications can be brooked. The pilot’s ending, for instance, seems to crisply and effectively resolve Walker’s family troubles, at least for now. And on the work front, the show laboring so hard to depict Walker as a basically nonviolent person who snaps for all the right reasons suggests that maybe it wasn’t a show that was ready to depict a cop snapping at all. Morgan, playing Walker’s partner, and Coby Bell, playing his captain (both actors of color), are given little more to do than orbit Walker and encourage him on his long-term quest for justice, one that may or may not include more outbursts. For all that we’re told Morgan’s character is a pathbreaker, she doesn’t feel real when not in the presence of Walker, her junior partner.
Padalecki steps into an iconic role after exiting one, on “Supernatural,” that earned him the loyalty of legions of fans; thus “Walker” is probably doubly review-proof. But just as the show raises questions it can’t or won’t address beyond simply bringing up, it also demands a sort of diffident angst that doesn’t come easily to an actor trained on playing the hero. Little wonder the show edges away from the concerns it itself prompts; things were easier, perhaps, when actors could just punch and kick their way to glory, without all the tricky thought involved.
“Walker” premieres Jan. 21 at 8 p.m. ET on the CW.