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Walker on the Mild Side

two faces of Norris
Move Over, Stanislavsky: TV Texas Ranger and moral conscience Chuck Norris shows off his extensive repertoire of expressions.

What's a right-wing action hero like Chuck Norris doing in a multiculti liberal cop show like 'Walker'?

By Richard von Busack

"Walker, Texas Ranger" is a richly campy TV show, and yet it has a certain softness to it, a warmth and fuzziness. One feels free of liberal guilt after rolling around in what superficially looks like a right-wing law-enforcement fantasy starring that rigid icon of the genre, Chuck Norris. Indeed a lot of liberals must be wallowing, because the show (which airs Saturday nights at 9 on CBS) has been in or very near the top 10 in ratings this year.

Police shows will be regaling viewers for as long as television exists that it's not safe to go out at night and that you're better off staying home watching TV. The usual subject in policiers is the balance between the rights of the innocent and the demands of justice--with the scales generally tipping to the right--but even a good liberal cop show like Homicide (a good good show, as opposed to Walker, a great bad show) is more pessimistic than Walker about social problems; nobody believes the police can fix them.

By contrast, Ranger Cordell Walker's criminal cases are so completely cut-and-dried that he's never really troubled by the law's delay, any more than Superman is. Playing Walker, Norris looks born to the superhero role: his duster in the title credits flaps in the breeze like a cape as he towers over the Houston skyline; his face is masked; and he turns his head stiffly as if the cowl were already on him. (Chief O'Hara--send up the Hat Signal!)

The pulp fiction idea of the cops unfairly hamstrung by the do-gooder courts crops up in Walker rarely, and almost as an aside. After Walker had been given an especially bad time by a maniac, he concluded an episode with an untypical comment: "Until the justice system cares more about the victims, all we can do is catch 'em and prosecute 'em." Otherwise, Walker's faith in the justice system is untroubled; at the end of one show, during which he triumphed over a lynch mob, he and his pals actually toasted "Justice." It's hard to imagine the crowd at Munch's bar in Homicide drinking to such a toast without wistfulness or irony.

Walker is a Texas Ranger, which means he's like a CHP officer with an ancestral myth. He owns a ranch and a pickup and sees a mostly platonic DA girlfriend, Alex Cahill (Sheree J. Wilson)--that's Texas justice for you, the police and the prosecutor sharing the blankets. The show also features an old ex-ranger turned barkeep (Noble Willingham) for the Matlock audience and, as Walker's good right arm, Deputy Trivette (ex-football player Clarence Gillyard).

There's supposed to be a little bit of a racism problem in Texas, but you'd never know it from the sterling nobility of Deputy Trivette, who really is an African American paragon. He'd die for Walker (it's surprising, in fact, that he hasn't already expired) and has all but told the children in the audience that they should drink their milk every day. He also wears a very, very large cowboy hat to prove that he's a good sport in general. Having less dignity than Walker (rather like having less dignity than Mount Whitney, really), Trivette is the comedy relief. It's come to the point that when Trivette actually threw a punch at someone during the course of an episode, it was a surprise.

Trivette is primarily good for arriving during the last reel to help mop up with the rest of the police. For the most part, Walker goes up alone against the rustlers: mad bomber rustlers, white-supremacist rustlers, wife-beatin' rustlers. Walker's most regular nemesis, and an exemplar for the show's villains, is a serial-killer rustler named La Rue, a good rustler name if ever there was one, kind of French and effeminate.

La Rue is, after his release on some sort of technicality (the warrant was sent postage due or something), free to stalk our hero. This is obviously a serious matter. Even effete serial killers possess supernatural strength and inexhaustible bank accounts, can go through locked doors, and can be in two places at once.

I hate to spoil an episode, but I have to describe how Walker freed himself from this dybbuk. LaRue had knocked Walker unconscious and staked him for the scorpions to play with. La Rue had also previously kidnapped Walker's pal Alex and tied her to the bed back at the ranch as "dessert" to the death of Walker, which he proposed as "dinner."

Now, no 6-year-old in the audience could have failed to see, earlier in the episode, Walker showing off the way that his pony, Amigo, can untie knots with its teeth. The suspense came in how long Walker could hold off the scorpions stinging his bare chest while waiting for the horse to show up and do its trick. Amigo, with somewhat more dignity than Walker himself, was slow to respond.

Alex herself doesn't get tied up often. Walker is too soft to stoop to that kind of titillation. Occasionally, though, a show will open with something for Dad as well as Junior, as in one episode in which illegal-immigrant-slaving rustlers forced a rather stunning young woman in an evening dress to prostitute. The slavering, worse-case-scenario customer met her tearful confession of it being her first time with a snarled, "Okay, let's see what you're made of!" (She escapes, never fear.)

It may seem insensitive to laugh at this kind of situation. Pat Barker's novel Blow Your House Down says that the dilemma of the prostitute is that if the customers are mean, you hate them, and if they're nice, you hate yourself. If, seeing this trembling, weeping novice, the guy was trying to comfort her (even as he was feeling her up in a chaste, TV sort of way), the scene would have been so horrible that you couldn't have taken your eyes off of it. In the old days of more reactionary cop shows, the woman would have died for her whoredom.

Naturally, the scenario went the other way, to the simplicity of melodrama--everything but the top hat, the opera cloak and the handlebar mustache--and for the next hour the level stayed there. As it always does, every Saturday night in Walker country.

The program reeks atmosphere. It's is the first network-TV show to film exclusively in Texas and, as such, offers a fine opportunity for little-theater actors seeking bit parts--and weird and hungry thespians they are, too. There is no substitute for the low-budget aura of funk that hiring semipro actors provides. When that lynch mob gathered, it was a genuinely realistic sight.

Monty Brinton/CBS

Another aspect of Walker's Texas locations: (1) deregulated explosions, and (2) cheaper real estate to explode. The explosions in Walker are outstanding. In one episode, a mad-bomber rustler, who won my heart by giggling merrily through the duration of the episode just to show us exactly how nuts he was, actually detonated an entire suburban cul-de-sac.

Soon after Walker, Texas Ranger became a necessary part of my weekend, I learned it was one of the shows that was the target of complaints about TV being too violent. Anything that makes you feel like a rebel while safely sitting on your butt watching TV adds to the experience. It thus became a point of political honor to tune it in.

I was not about to let a bunch of righteous God-peskerers and lily-livered whiners dictate what I'd watch on TV, especially a television show dedicated to a conservative bugaboo like law and order. It would take an extraordinary amount of sensitivity to be offended by the violence on Walker, however, and Norris, in interviews, rightfully complains about self-appointed censors counting the number of punches thrown in the show. Violence in a TV show or movie hurts through the process of empathy, as in the following schematic:

Villain inflicts some sort of pain, a slap, a gun shot, a nailing to a cross or whatever.

CUT TO the actor's face, who registers the anguish, and, as if you saw his face in the mirror, his pain is yours.

You can easily figure out what the problem is with actually experiencing any sympathetic, potentially emotionally scarring pain (or deviant pleasure) from a Chuck Norris production--it's the part about the actor's face registering the anguish.

Norris' ordeal scenes are basically what you experienced from seeing GI Joe's face when you held its little plastic feet to the fire as a child--"Talk, Yankee dog! Next time I am not being so polite!" Norris is one of the grandest immobiles in the history of movie acting; next to him, even Charles Bronson seems as nuanced as Alec Guinness.

Norris has become, despite himself, a very funny actor; age has changed him for the better. Even his look upon being pushed into a brawl is especially forlorn, like the one the cat gives you when you throw him off a chair you want to use. (None of us kickbox like we did 20 years ago.) Avant-garde directors like Ackerman, Antonioni and Bresson often talk about the casting of completely inexpressive actors to prove an artistic point; I think they really could have used Chuck Norris.

Norris' reactions to a range of incidents during the course of the show--sorrow at a friend's trouble, ordering a beer, alarm, watchfulness, killing rage, unconsciousness--all elicit the same vaguely disapproving look, as if he'd overheard someone badmouthing John Wayne. Of course, Walker's immobility may be due to his being half-Indian, a notoriously solemn bunch on TV and the movies. In a recent episode we even discovered that Walker's true surname is Firewalker. He must have had a Spanish-surname relative somewhere, too. In another episode, Walker, who, we are assured, "speaks Spanish like a native," dyes his skin, lassoes a bandanna around his neck and disguises himself as the humble campesino "Gomez from Guadalajara."

He's a man of many parts. Even as the title of 1988's Hero and the Terror indicates, Norris was seeking a sort of generic quality in his heroes. Of all the 1970s and 1980s action stars, from Bronson to Schwarzenegger, Norris looks the least like a hypocrite; he is probably the most lovable, because he had the least persona to give up.

In paranoid times, tough cop shows blur the difference between right-wing and left-wing persecution fantasies. When 1973's Walking Tall, an early example of the genre, came out, Rolling Stone's critics called it a perfect tale of individual battling against a corrupt America, even as the New York Times considered it a horrifying right-wing fantasy.

Even bearing in mind that Walker, for all its equating of force with justice, is an earnest liberal show, there are some right-wing hobgoblins evident. The evil La Rue knew that diabolical old homicidal-maniac trick of paying someone to beat you up and then claiming the cops did it (he probably learned it from Dirty Harry, like the rest of us). Then there was an episode upbraiding media recklessness--"media" was played by Paul Williams, as a DJ encouraging delusions of Clyde Barrowism in a young hoodlum over the radio. (The source this time was Vanishing Point, with Richie Havens' DJ urging the hero on.)

And yet, these favorite themes of reactionary TV-cop lore have been overwhelmed by more liberal concerns: episodes about women's safety, the exploited immigrants, white supremacists. Shoot, they'll probably have some good celibate lesbian on next year.

Walker is the multiculti pictograph-person hero, sometimes Mexican, sometimes Native American, mostly white--with a career-minded girlfriend and a black deputy. In real life, Norris is an outspoken Republican, but in Walker he occupies a liberal-centrist dream world. Ostensibly about the toughest marshal east of the Pecos, Walker is as feminist as Roseanne, as chummy as Seinfeld, as caring as ER. The popularity of Walker, Texas Ranger is evidence, if not conclusive proof, that Clinton will win again in November.

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From the March 28-April 3, 1996 issue of Metro

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