The process of rebranding a network can be a tricky one, especially when the transition takes the channel in question from the bro-y excess of Spike to the more respectable sounding Paramount Network — which at least gives potential viewers some idea of what they can expect from the channel’s original offerings. The relation to the movie studio offers the chance to move forward with more ambitious projects to compete in the age of Peak TV than, say, The Shannara Chronicles, The Mist, or endless reruns of Cops, and the first step for newly christened network is the prestige-y Waco, a star-studded account of the Branch Davidian siege, a standoff that lasted for 51 days and ended with 76 men, women, and children dead.
Waco comes from filmmaking duo John Erick and Drew Dowdle, whose previous credits are the horror films The Poughkeepsie Tapes, Devil, and As Above / So Below. They also recently delivered the Owen Wilson/Pierce Brosnan action-drama No Escape. As such, the shift from horror and action to fictionalized account of recent American history is perhaps as big as the one from feature filmmaking to TV event series. And given the state of television today and its ability (as well as the desire of those making it) to compete with theatrical releases by attracting recognizable stars and giving them potentially compelling material to work with that isn’t also an attempt to further a studio’s attempts to further its various connected universes, that shift seems likely to continue.
TV’s interest in making feature film-like events is further demonstrated with the relative restraint of the production in terms of the size of the series itself. At just six episodes, Waco brings a welcome sense of brevity, especially when compared with the 10-episodes of The X-Files or the recently launched The Alienist. With so much television just waiting to be watched, and with so many networks still hoping to get viewers’ eyeballs on their product when it airs live, asking for a six-week commitment feels much more like a win in the potential viewership column for Waco.
Another win is the aforementioned cast. The Dowdle brothers found a compelling pair of leads in Michael Shannon as FBI hostage negotiator Gary Noesner and Taylor Kitsch as David Koresh, the leader of the Branch Davidian sect who has been the subject of many a TV movie already. The series also boasts Supergirl’s Melissa Benoist as Rachel Koresh, Shae Whigham as FBI agent Mitch Decker, John Leguizamo as Jacob Vasquez, and Rory Culkin as David Thibodeau, one of the few members of the Branch Davidians to survive the siege.
For his part, Kitsch makes for a charismatic cult leader, balancing the need to make Koresh’s appeal understandable, while simultaneously underlining the way in which he used that appeal to manipulate and allegedly abuse his followers. Rather than explore some of the accusations against him, however, the series instead makes the surprising choice of explaining the devotion of the members of his flock, using Thibodeau’s integration into their dormitory/commune/compound as justification for Paul Sparks’ Steve Schneider to talk up the cult leader’s allure, despite having learned his wife Judy (Black Mirror’s Andrea Riseborough) is carrying Koresh’s child on account of some very strict sexual laws that worked entirely in Koresh’s favor. That information complicates things in a way that partially explains the fascination surrounding this story after 25 years. To his credit, Kitsch plays those conflicting notes well, delivering a strong character performance within the margins of the series’ somewhat limited scope.
Shannon’s Noesner is, by contrast, more of a straight shooter, a man who is openly critical of the government’s tactics at Waco and the incident at Ruby Ridge. Noesner’s prominence is in part due to the series’ approach to the story that itself takes a critical approach to the tactics of the ATF and the FBI, in addition to the use of his memoir, Stalling For Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator (as well as Thibodeau’s A Place Called Waco: A Survivor’s Story). Noesner is the voice of reason from the very beginning, which is why he was written into the Ruby Ridge standoff, an incident the series uses as a framing device for its examination of the ways in which the Branch Davidian siege was mishandled. And in doing so, Shannon turns his trademark intensity into admirable earnestness as a government agent who desperately wants to preserve lives on both sides of the conflict.
Shannon and Kitsch make for distinct cornerstones in the series’ dual narratives, the value of which becomes more evident as the story progresses and the standoff begins to unfold. The strength of its lead performances (as well as an unsurprisingly strong supporting role from Leguizamo) along with some excellent production design, gives Waco an edge it might otherwise not have had, due in part to how uneven the script feels at times. That unevenness is partially the result of structure and point of view. Though necessary in terms of the ideas central to the three episodes made available to critics, the standoff at Ruby Ridge nevertheless muddles the introduction of Noesner, while the emphasis on Koresh early on drags, as the leader of the fringe group ensnares Thibodeau at a local bar that’s hosting his band. Tightening up both accounts — introducing Noesner via his objections to the handling of Ruby Ridge and presenting a look into the compound from Thibodeau’s perspective, while keeping Koresh an enigmatic presence in the margins — would have gone a long way in elevating the first hour to the level of the performances.
Keeping Koresh at arm’s length might also have solved the biggest of the series’ problems: the depiction of the cult leader runs too sympathetic at times. Excising some of what Koresh was alleged to have done, including child abuse and statutory rape, alongside the supposed illegal stockpiling of weapons, doesn’t do the series any favors, especially when the argument it’s trying to make is that no one, regardless their beliefs or the accusations against them, deserves to be on the receiving end of law enforcement’s shoot first, asking questions later tactics.
To Waco’s credit, that message becomes clearer as the series reaches the midway point. Though it doesn’t entirely assuage the issues with regard to the script, it does help the fine performances elevate the series and give Paramount Network a prestige-adjacent event at launch.
Waco continues next Wednesday with ‘The Strangers Across the Street’ @10pm on Paramount Network.
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