We’re at a very strange TV crossroads where an overabundance of top-notch original series has reached a juncture with audiences’ renewed hunger for true crime narratives. From the acclaimed The People v. O.J. Simpson to the upcoming show about the Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur murders, no tombstones shall go unturned. Paramount Network similarly looked to the 1990s for its new miniseries Waco, centered on the highly controversial showdown between the U.S. government and the cult/religious group led by the self-professed messiah David Koresh. While not particularly groundbreaking, Waco earns viewers’ attention with a superb cast, winning performances and its exploration of a story fraught with misinformation.
Waco was created by filmmaker brothers John Erick and Drew Dowdle, best known for horror movies such as Quarantine and As Above, So Below. (As well as the extremely unlucky 2007 found-VHS flick The Poughkeepsie Tapes, which went without an official release for a full decade.) One might have expected the brothers to lace Waco with plenty of genre markings, considering David Koresh’s name is often spoken in the same breath as Charles Manson and other real-life antagonists, but that’s not the case; at least not in the early episodes screened for critics. However, the lack of horror set dressing is precisely what makes certain Waco moments all the more disturbing, since it’s that much harder to demonize manipulative narcissists when the soundtrack isn’t prompting our unease.
In a slice of casting I couldn’t have seen coming from ten feet away, Taylor Kitsch got as scruffy as he’s ever been to portray David Koresh, the charismatic and emotionally imbalanced leader of the Branch Davidians, a religious offshoot largely based out of the Mount Carmel Center in Texas. Kitsch could have easily been a terrible pick here, but he delivers a relatively uncomplicated performance that hits both of the notes that it needs to: it’s easy to grasp why people would want to flock to wherever Koresh was speaking, and he’s never presented as if he isn’t the prophet he says he is. Side note: Kitsch’s Koresh sounds a lot like Andrew Lincoln’s Rick Grimes on The Walking Dead, and it’s surprisingly rewarding to sometimes pretend that show’s zombified world is connected to Waco‘s.
Since the miniseries’ timeline is set around the big 51-day standoff that took the country by storm back in 1993, Waco focuses on a select group of people in David Koresh’s life. Supergirl star Melissa Benoist plays Koresh’s steadily devout first wife Rachel, whose much younger sister Michelle (played by Ozark standout Julia Garner) is also one of the leader’s wives, and one that Koresh had been sleeping with since her adolescence. (Somehow, discussions about child rape have never been more sterilized and unemotional.) In Paul Sparks’ Steve Schneider, Koresh had an essential piece of the Branch Davidian formula, but tensions flare when the miniseries kicks off with Steve’s wife Judy (Andrea Riseborough) announcing she’s pregnant with Koresh’s kid. And then we have Demore Barnes’ Wayne Martin, the somewhat level-headed father who serves as Mount Carmel’s lawyer.
Unlucky enough to get caught up in Koresh’s arresting influence is outsider David Thibodeau (Rory Culkin), a disbeliever who nonetheless becomes a big part of the Mount Carmel community. Interestingly, the real David Thibodeau authored a miniseries tie-in book called Waco: A Survivor’s Story, where he shares his personal experiences during those months leading into the deadly standoff. TV vet Camryn Monheim plays David’s mother Balenda, who finds herself making strange acquaintances with Koresh’s mother Bonnie Sue, played by Blaire Chandler, as the two women watch the sordid situation play out on the news.
In telling its largely balanced story, Waco obviously devotes some of its runtime to the government figures that complicated the situation. Leading the call of duty is Michael Shannon’s morose Gary Noesner, a decorated FBI hostage negotiator whose moral standing and sense of justice are tested by colleagues who would rather let their guns do the negotiating. Such a colleague would be Shea Whigham’s Mitch Decker, the FBI’s action-ready tactical commander. On the ATF side is Christopher Stanley’s Commander Edward Wiggins and John Leguizamo’s Jacob Vasquez, who is part of a thinly veiled undercover assignment to find evidence of wrongdoing within the compound. For as interesting as that part of the story could have been, it’s a strangely ungrounded role, and Leguizamo sometimes looks as if he’s more confused than his character is.
Waco boasts enough star-power to tell a story twice as long, which means its six-episode length essentially counts as a fault. John Erick and Drew Dowdle deliver an engaging portrayal of Koresh’s mayhem-laden swan song, but their delivery doesn’t necessarily add anything new or refreshing to the facts that have already been shared a zillion different ways in the past 25 years. While watching, I found myself wishing that Waco used the Mount Carmel standoff as a springboard to delve into Koresh’s equally troublesome story before he was accepted as the Branch Davidians’ leader. Or that the story could reside longer in the headspaces of characters whose lives must have been a cacophony of angst and confusion. They say to always leave audiences wanting more, but this isn’t quite that.
If viewed as the first prestige-esque release from the newly dubbed Paramount Network, Waco is a promising and potentially auspicious debut, with more than enough points of interest to keep audiences hooked for its six-episode run. When stacked up against the plethora of other high-profile dramas and thrillers populating our must-watch lists, however, it loses some of its urgency. Waco won’t be setting any new bars for true crime fiction, but it’s a solid and timely reminder of just how easily we can be swayed by loud and confident people, regardless of what’s coming out of their mouths.
6 / 10 stars
Waco will premiere on Paramount Network on Wednesday, January 24, at 10:00 p.m. ET. To see when other shows will be returning and debuting in the coming months, head over to our midseason premiere schedule.