Walker showrunner Anna Fricke discusses reimagining 1990s Chuck Norris series Walker, Texas Ranger and the challenges of making TV during the pandemic.
While filming on US drama Walker continues apace in Austin, Texas, showrunner Anna Fricke is at home in LA. For those dealing with the challenge of making television during the Covid-19 pandemic, having members of your team in different places is now a common obstacle.
“It’s very bizarre. We’re all in the same boat but it’s a real adjustment,” Fricke tells DQ. “It’s an adjustment on the writers’ side because I love being in the writers room and interacting with the writers and meeting daily, and we still do that on Zoom. We met in person twice but we’ve been in a Zoom room since March 13 [last year] and it’s just bizarre. There are some writers who I have never even met in person.”
With scriptwriting for the series close to completion, the writers room will close later this month, but Fricke will continue to produce Walker from afar with support from producing director Steve Robin on the ground in Austin.
“I’m incredibly grateful for our producing team and our crew,” she continues. “We’re all in very close communication with each other at all times. There have been days I’m just being carried around [the set] on an iPad.”
As for running a writers room over the internet, video conferencing has allowed conversation to continue, though the open and inclusive environment often afforded by having numerous writers in a room together can become stilted online.
“You can’t read someone’s body language in the same way and it can be hard to tell when someone is about to talk,” Fricke says. “But it’s really important to me, as a showrunner, to create that safe space and to be very open. I always try to overshare so that people feel safe. And I will say, just given where we are in the world and everything that’s happened in the past year, it’s forced us all to be very authentic because no one can ignore what’s going on. As a group of writers, it’s brought us closer together, even though we’re in this Zoom room. But we definitely have shared and have been very open.”
Managing emotions has also been a key part of supporting her writers. “Everyone’s been given the space to have their feelings because you have to,” she adds. “That’s what’s been difficult to navigate, just in terms of managing a group of people to come into a Zoom room at 10 in the morning and sometimes just be like, ‘How are you today?’ and let that conversation go for an hour. Then eventually we have to get back into the storytelling, but it’s been a lot of, ‘How are you? How are you really?’
Commissioned by US network The CW in January last year, Walker reimagines 1990s series Walker, Texas Ranger, which starred Chuck Norris as a member of the Texas Rangers and ran for eight seasons on CBS.
This new series stars Supernatural’s Jared Padalecki in the lead as Cordell Walker, a widower and father-of-two who returns home to Austin after time spent undercover. Here, he must reconnect with his thoughtful son (Kale Culley) and rebellious daughter (Violet Brinson). At work as a Texas Ranger, meanwhile, Walker finds his former colleague is now his captain (Coby Bell) and his new partner is one of the first women in history to become a ranger (Lindsey Morgan), while he also grows increasingly suspicious over his wife’s death. The series is produced by CBS Studios in association with Rideback and is distributed by ViacomCBS Global Distribution Group.
With CBS Studios looking to refresh the original series and Austin-based Padalecki keen to play the lead, Fricke came on board as showrunner in autumn 2019 to steer the project. With Padalecki having starred in more than 300 episodes of fellow The CW series Supernatural across 15 seasons, Fricke jokes that the actor “could have never worked again.”
“Sometimes I’m like, ‘What are you doing?’” the showrunner adds. But Padalecki’s enthusiasm for the project was infectious. “I saw the [original] show when I was a kid but I wasn’t like, ‘I must bring this character to life,'” Fricke continues. “But I do know Jared and I were interested in what he wanted to say [as Walker], so when he and I first sat down and talked about it, I realised there was a lot of potential here.
“If you look at my resumé, it’s not like you would automatically think, ‘Oh, Anna needs to do the reboot of this show.’ I’m not your go-to procedural writer, but the conversations he wanted to have for the character, the stories he wanted to tell about a man who is the edge of the coin, and having these conversations in modern-day America, were very interesting to me.”
The fact that Padalecki is also an exec producer adds to Fricke’s connection to the set, with the producers in regular contact despite being in different timezones.
“It’s been a learning process because I’ve never done a show where one of the actors was an EP. So for me, it’s been a case of, ‘Am I bothering you? I know you worked 14 hours a day. Do you want to have this conversation?’ There’s been a learning curve of how much to involve him and when to bring him in on something,” she explains.
“But I have learned he wants all the information. He doesn’t like to be surprised, so I try to keep him posted on things and bring him into stories and ideas early on. He’s especially been fantastic with casting because, in addition to the core cast, we have several characters come into the season who play very important roles. His point of view on the casting process has been incredibly useful; he has a lot of really and intelligent insight.”
Blending Austin’s urban landscapes with the wide-open vistas commonly associated with westerns, Walker is described as a family show that explores the title character’s return home to his family and his realisation of the consequences of his physical and emotional absence.
“He realises it’s not enough just to physically be there, so he has to take on the role of both parents and appreciate what a father and a mother do and how to raise your children in that way,” Fricke says. “Walker in general is a man who’s learning a lot. He’s learning how to parent but is someone whose job is all-consuming. He’s learning how he has to truly be there.”
Taking on a police procedural in the age of the Black Lives Matter movement, the showrunner admits she was wary. “But I soon came to understand we unwittingly set ourselves up to tell very responsible stories and hopefully compelling stories with Walker having a Mexican-American female partner and having a black boss,” she says.
“Captain James has taken this job hoping to reform the department. That was his goal. That was all baked into the idea of the show. Then we realised that with the character of Walker, we can really show him as what he is, which is a white man who’s grown up with that privilege and he’s being forced to examine that. Those are the stories we explore over the course of this season in the longer character arcs. But as Lindsey Morgan said, ‘We’re still entertainment.’ We’re not here to be preachy or to impose any particular agenda. We’re here to have conversations. Over the course of the season, Walker does think about who he is as a man and who he is as a ranger. That’s the longer arc.”
Meanwhile, rather than Walker seeing most of the action, it’s Morgan’s character, Micki, who ends up with most of the physical scenes. “Someone pointed out that Micki actually does a lot more of the ass-kicking,” Fricke says. “I didn’t even realise I was doing it. But I do tend to give those moments to her because I’m excited to show her in that role.”
That role sees Micki, a Mexican-American, as one of the first female Texas Rangers, with a mother who strongly disapproves of her career choice. “The Texas Rangers have a very complicated history, especially with Mexicans,” the showrunner notes. “So for Micki to take this job, she sees it as, ‘I’m going to fix the problem from the inside out. I’m here to make change.’ And her mother can’t believe she’s in law enforcement. It’s a very interesting dynamic.”
Walker was ordered straight to series by The CW with an initial commitment of 13 episodes – a further five scripts have been picked up and will likely be produced – meaning Fricke and her team didn’t have a pilot episode in which to hone the show before making future episodes. Diving straight into the series and learning about its characters and tone has proven to be one of Fricke’s biggest challenges and, in particular, she has identified how Walker’s case-of-the-week elements land better with the audience when the show’s core characters are emotionally involved in some way.
“We’re not a heavy procedural show but any time we’ve tried to do bigger cases that are not really connected [to the characters], it doesn’t work as well,” she says. “We’ve been learning that act six is always a big, emotional family moment. It’s not a takedown. I know the episode is successful if I’m crying in act six because there is a fireside moment or something like that.
“But the challenges of filming with the pandemic mean everything is very different. We have to move fast. We have smaller crews. We don’t do crowd scenes or, at the moment, huge stunts because there aren’t any hospital beds, so you don’t want to risk someone getting injured. We just can’t do that right now. It also changes the way we approach intimacy, which affects storytelling in ways you didn’t expect. You’re used to having kiss scenes – what do you do if they can’t kiss? It’s pushed us in creative ways.”
With other credits including Everwood, Wayward Pines and Valor, Fricke began her writing career on Dawson’s Creek, comparing her four-year stint on the influential teen drama to attending television school. Those lessons continue to inform her approach to storytelling, not least the ‘character first’ mantra she picked up from series showrunners Greg Berlanti (The Flash, Arrow) and Rina Mimoun (Everwood, Mistresses).
“Greg, who was running it when I was there, is one of the greatest teachers of all time in terms of breaking story,” she says. “I will always remember one day coming into the writers room at Dawson’s Creek. We had all these beats up on the board and we had already broken out a lot of the story. Greg was very character forward and he came in and erased the whole board and just wrote down ‘Pacey – Joey.’ He was like, ‘Focus on what moments you want to see’ and we would talk about scenes in no particular order, really thinking about the heart of the character first, as opposed to what’s the act out.”
More recently, Fricke has worked on reboots and adaptations such as the US television versions of UK series Being Human, Spanish YA drama Red Band Society and Tom Cruise blockbuster Minority Report. On those shows and Walker, her approach is to find what she loves about the source material and then respect it without copying it.
“With Being Human, I consumed it and then put it out of my mind,” she says of the series, the US version of which she co-created with husband Jeremy Carver (Supernatural). “I didn’t want to reference it. I didn’t want to keep checking back on it. It’s just like, ‘What did I love?’ and try to be faithful to that.
“That’s also true with this show. What do we love about the idea of Cordell Walker and trying to show a man who is a bit of a maverick and has a sense of humour? We’ve got action and some high-octane stuff and also a lot of heart, and giving people what they might expect when they come to the show but also opening up the character more in ways that maybe people didn’t expect.”