Question: I was allowed to watch Walker, Texas Ranger when I was a kid because my folks thought it was a good family show. But I caught a few reruns recently, and it's the most violent show on the planet! What was CBS thinking, promoting that as a family show? Am I nuts on this?
Answer: The most violent show, Craig? I think if you caught Vic Mackey holding a bad guy's head to a stove burner on FX, or the recent gladiator sequence on HBO's Rome, you'd back off a bit on that statement. However, from a network-TV point of view, you've still got a point. It was, at least, one of the most violent network shows at the time. I remember watching a Walker episode in which Walker entered a warehouse full of (we were to assume) bad guys and sent one of them flying over a railing into a pile of wooden crates below, all without one word of conversation. And I'm thinking, he has no idea if that guy's actually done anything or not, and he also has no clue as to what's in those crates, which could be full of pipes for all he knows.
Nevertheless, you're not alone in wondering why a show that portrayed justice as a boot to the skull (ever think about how much it would hurt to get kicked in the head with a Tony Lama?) was hailed as a family experience. Plenty of people wondered why back then, too, but just as many people watched, so the ratings had the final say.
TV Guide critic Jeff Jarvis, too, had reservations about the show, which debuted on CBS' Saturday-night schedule in April 1993, noting that every episode contained at least one scene where Norris put a world of hurt on some lowlife. "He does all this with the bored demeanor of a man mowing his yard," Jarvis wrote. "No matter how intense the action, he never breaks a sweat, grimaces, worries, or so much as says 'ouch.' He just beats up bad guys and leaves. And that does bother me; it makes violence look so neat and easy. Yet there is also an odd sense of decency about the violence on Walker. Norris does not revel in it. He gets the dirty work over with quickly, as if his punches were just a dose of yucky medicine that society must take for its own good. And besides, the good guys do win the fights."
Which, to Norris, was the whole point. "It's not fighting for fighting's sake," he said in 1996. "[The critics] say we're the most violent show on TV that's not a cartoon, but they don't evaluate the morality behind the violence.... We build the bad guy up to a point where the viewers say, 'If Walker isn't going to do something, I'll go kick his butt myself!'"
Now, I don't know that the average Walker fan thought the Texas Ranger and his foes were real, but I get the actor's point. And I have to hand it to him; in the end, he applied the wisest standard. "If viewers tell me it's too violent, then I'll tone it down," he said.
They didn't. As a matter of fact, they ate it up and asked for more. When Norris, who'd had a string of hits on the big screen (Good Guys Wear Black, Lone Wolf McQuade, Code of Silence and the Missing in Action and Delta Force flicks), decided to jump into TV, he promised the CBS suits his show would be a top-10 hit. They lowered the bar, expectations-wise, explaining that Saturday wasn't exactly a hot TV night for viewers. But darned if he didn't do as he said. Walker hit the top 10 three times in less than two years, and was a top-20 staple.
"It's an uplifting show," Norris, who took up karate after losing a fight when he was in the Air Force and went on to become a six-time world middleweight champion, said of his show. "Good prevails. You feel like cheering at the end." Perhaps. But either way, that end didn't come for a respectable time. Walker put the boots to bad guys' heads until July 2001.