- Coyote. Available now on CBS All Access.
- Walker. The CW. Thursday, January 21, 8 p.m.
In 1982, director Tony Richardson made a film called The Border, starring Jack Nicholson as a U.S. border patrolman who reluctantly changes sides after flukey circumstances lead him to observe, up close, the plight of refugees fleeing violence and poverty in Mexico and Central America.
The movie, flying in the face of Hollywood's prevailing political winds of the day (the Democratic Party back then still regarded illegal immigration as a greedy corporate plot to subvert organized labor rather than a humanitarian issue), was under-promoted, didn't find an audience, and sank with all aboard.
Nothing illustrates the profound flip-flop in the politics of immigration like Coyote, the new series on the streaming CBS All Access channel. Even though it stars Michael Chiklis, the mad-dog renegade cop of The Shield, this time you know the surly border patrolman is going to have a white-guy heart of gold in the end. The only surprise in Coyote is the quality: It's very good.
Sometimes a noir, sometimes a western, sometimes a tense action thriller and sometimes piquantly funny, Coyote has something for nearly everybody—even those faithful few fans obsessed with superhero bowel movements: Chiklis detects one immigrant-smuggling ring while sitting on the toilet.
Chiklis plays Ben Clemens, who on the day the story begins, is retiring after 32 years on the job in the San Diego area. He's no xenophobic monster, just a guy doing a job (rather well) but with no particular sympathy for the immigrants—or "TONKS," short for "territory of origin now known," as the border agents call them—he picks up for deportation. Nor does he recognize the job's cost to his own family; he's divorced, a stranger to his kids, and doesn't wonder at all why his wife left him for a touch-feely therapeutic counselor (played annoyingly well by a sympathy-oozing Mark Feuerstein).
Clemens also has some embarrassing and perhaps tragic secrets in his career background. One of them, involving the death of his long-time partner Javy, is what takes him across the border after his retirement; Javy was building his family a house there, and Clemens is determined to finish the work. But an inadvertent and—by itself—not terribly threatening encounter with the hothead nephew of a Mexican narcotrafficker leads to an escalating confrontations. In the end, Clemens finds himself unwillingly escorting the narco's teenage (and pregnant) mistress through a gap in the U.S. border barriers to help her evade a beating or worse. And that's far from the end of the matter.
That armed trek across the desert—it consumes almost the entire second episode, and at one point I seriously wondered if it might take up the entire remainder of the six-hour series—is what turns Coyote from an interesting but rather ordinary cop show into high drama that at times borders on epic. Clemens' pidgin conversations with Maria Elena (Salvadoran actress Emy Mena), the refugee girl he's helping—neither of them speak more than a few words of the other's language—are often comic. Practicing an English sentence that, Clemens has assured her, will make her a candidate for asylum if she's captured by the Border Patrol, Maria Elena blunders through the alien words: "I have a well-founded fear of the constitution." Reverting to Spanish to curse out loud at her luck at being trapped with a pigheaded fat man, a gordo, she reels in confusion at Clemens' wounded bellow: "I understood that!"
But the conversations are also revelatory and barrier-breaking. Clemens learns that Maria Elena is neither a criminal or a moral slacker but a girl who fled a Salvadoran gang that murdered her teacher father and was rounded up like a runaway slave by the Mexican narcotrafficker who impregnated her. And Maria Elena learns that Clemens may be fat, old and sometimes clumsy (Chiklis has put on some years and pounds since The Shield), but he still has considerable skills in negotiating the U.S. border gauntlet, and he's dedicating them all to her rescue.
That border and the desert surrounding it are almost like characters in Coyote. Director Michelle McLaren, who clearly learned a thing or two while working on the New Mexico-based Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, makes skillful use of dunes and cactus to evoke the pitiless nature of the sere landscape that illegal immigrants must survive to reach America. (She's also very good at depicting the hustling hurly-burly of the urbanized portion of the border in Tijuana.) The cops and narcotraffickers aren't the only predators haunting Coyote.
Yet Coyote is no mere immigration sob story. By conflating the activities of narcotraffickers and immigrant-smugglers—a fusion that often takes place on the southwestern U.S. border, where it usually occurs to the men engaged in one of those trades that they could boost their profits by adding the other—the show introduces a challenging moral complexity to its tale. The libertarian argument that the drug trade (or, for that matter, the immigration trade) would not be practiced with such savagery if it was legal is persuasive in the long run but of marginal relevance at a moment when you're caught in a tunnel full of people waving knives and firing pistols. Maybe somebody can take a sword to the Godrian knot of smuggling, but the guy wielding it won't be a Ben Clemens wobbling around on bad knees, a fat gut, and a supervisor's cattle prod. Until then, Coyote is a fascinating, and very affecting, look at the situation on the ground.
If the three-dimensional quality of Coyote is a surprise, then it's hard to know what word to use of The CW's Walker, a remake of the old 1990s CBS slugfest Walker, Texas Ranger, starring Chuck Norris as the ass-kickingest lawman in television. (Typical Chuck Norris joke, of which there are many: Q. Why does Chuck Norris sleep with a night light? A. Because the dark is afraid of Chuck Norris.) TV Guide once remarked that Walker, Texas Ranger producers and directors didn't bother with story meetings and that stuff. They just "tell Chuck Norris to start kicking people's faces in for a solid hour, which he seems more than willing to do." Though, the magazine added, the show's screenplays deserved some credit: "they're scripted so Norris doesn't need to speak much."
Given that, you can probably imagine that I wasn't expecting much from The CW remake beyond a possible stroke. Startlingly, it's not bad; or, as Darren McGarvin said of the bottle of wine he found under the tree in A Christmas Story, "This wine isn't bad. It's not good, but it's not bad." The new Walker has absolutely no connection to the older one except the name of the lead character.
Gone is Norris and his single emotional on-screen note, primal bloodlust. This time around the role is filled by the hunky and charismatic Jared Padalecki, who played a ghost-busting Stanford dropout for 15 years on The CW's Supernatural. And his presence alone keeps Walker interesting while it sorts out what it wants to be: a cop show or a teen-angst melodrama as Walker's whiny kids complain endlessly about their dad having to have, you know, a job. I kind doubt that Padlecki, who battled werewolves and such in Supernatural, will settle for the latter.
Oh, and if you were wondering, no, Chuck Norris does not sing the theme song of the new Walker. Or rap it, or soullessly howl it, or whatever he thought he was doing back in the day. So maybe the universe isn't as cold and dead as 2020 made us think.