Walker, Texas Ranger; King of the Hill
Two prime-time series currently represent the great state of Texas: Walker, Texas Ranger, now in its ninth season, and King of the Hill, now in its fifth. The first has never been the sort of show with any pop-culture fizz. Originally conceived as a way for martial-arts star Chuck Norris to maintain some popularity as his film career faded, it’s a throwback, a crime-solving action hour that attracts CBS’ older demographic — it could have been called Rangers for People With Walkers.
King of the Hill, on the other hand, commenced its 1997 existence as the opportunity for Mike Judge, creator of MTV’s super-fizzy cartoon Beavis and Butt-head, to invade network television with a similarly quirky piece of animation. It didn’t quite work out that way — in fact, as far as I’m concerned, it developed into something far better than Beavis’ hit-or-miss goofball humor. Judge, along with cocreator Greg Daniels, proved they had generous hearts in their portrayal of propane salesman Hank Hill and his middle-class, Arlen, Tex., family.
Having watched this season’s worth of Walker and King thus far, plus a batch of early-period Walkers on the USA network (reruns air weeknights at 6 p.m.), I’m forcing a showdown between these Texans in various categories.
THEME SONGS King features a frenetic piece of rockabilly-punk courtesy of the Refreshments; Walker has a tune sung-spoken by Norris that includes the lines, ”When you’re in Texas look behind you/’Cause that’s where the ranger’s gonna be.” King has a better melody, but I dig that crazy-paranoiac Walker lyric. Winner: Walker, Texas Ranger
MARRIAGE Hank and Peggy Hill have a realistically portrayed, complex relationship based on mutual respect and inevitable conflict. Peggy teaches math at the Arlen high school, where she recently flunked a star on the football team. The boy got benched, which placed Hank in an awkward social position with his buddies, for whom football is a worshiped sport. While Hank’s misogynist father, the growly Cotton, would have simply ordered his wife to reinstate the boy, Hank was conflicted: He supported her decision while also bad-mouthing her to his pals. This episode captured a certain Texas ethos better than any fiction this side of novelist Larry McMurtry’s.
As for Walker, he’s married to Dallas attorney Alex Cahill, played by Sheree J. Wilson, an actress who knows her Texas — as April, she endured a lengthy affair with J.R. Ewing on Dallas. Walker and Alex have a sappily perfect union, possibly due to the fact that they are relative newlyweds. The only tension I’ve noticed occurred when Alex didn’t want Ranger bodyguards accompanying her while husband Walker hunted down a vicious but ridiculously florid crime lord called ”The Chairman.” Winner: King of the Hill
CHILDREN Hank and Peggy have a boisterous young teenager, Bobby, who is one of the most delightful, fully rounded (in every sense) characters on TV. A mystery to his father (Bobby likes tap dancing and ventriloquism, much to his macho dad’s dismay) and a treasure to his mom, Bobby can say, in his own genial defense, ”Who can hate a kid who can Charleston?”
Over on Walker, it was recently announced that Alex is pregnant. We’ll have to see exactly what kind of parents the costars become, but, c’mon, that poor baby: a Walker in a stroller. Winner (projected): King of the Hill
SELF-DEFENSE Walker could kick the pot-bellied Hank’s ass. But Peggy, with her sensible shoes, could probably knock Alex off her spiked heels with ease. Winner: a draw
REALISTIC DIALOGUE Two quick examples will suffice. 1. Motel owner, describing a suspect to Deputy Trivette (Clarence Gilyard) on Walker: ”Real weirdo. About six feet, bleached-white hair.” Trivette: ”Sounds like Frosty.”
2. Peggy Hill, regarding a board game at which she’s relentlessly adept: ”Boggle is a harsh mistress.” Winner: King of the Hill
EMOTIONAL EXPRESSIVENESS Both Hank and Walker affect a masculine deadpan as they pursue their duties, but Hank is far more capable of registering outrage, disbelief, and melancholy (as when, in the Dec. 3 episode, he said forlornly to Peggy at bedtime, ”Do you think the nail on my pinky toe will ever grow back?”). Norris as Walker, by contrast, exhibits exactly two expressions: stoic reserve while kicking people in the nether regions, and a sudden, frightening baring of the teeth that is evidently intended to indicate a smile whenever he sees his wife. Winner: Hank
Tote up the scores, and the Yellow Rose of Texas goes to…King of the Hill. I bet Ranger Walker will ask his homey, our new President Bush, for a recount, though.