This Waco review contains spoilers.
Waco Episode 1
Spike TV is dead. Long live the Paramount Network. Freshly rebranded and ready to launch a heap of new original series, the Paramount Network has arrived as “a prime destination for premium storytelling,” according to the channel’s mission statement. Kicking things off is Waco, the dramatic retelling of the horrific 1993 religious massacre that took place in Waco, Texas at Mount Carmel. The massive failures in communication, moral lapses, and gross impulsivity that led to the deaths of 76 people is a horrid but true tale ripe for the prestige TV treatment. With the actual events distorted by history and unreliable sources, and with blame lying almost equally on both sides, the Waco siege is a complex, multifaceted tragedy that, at least in its premiere, Waco seems to be oversimplifying.
Perhaps painting with such broad strokes is inevitable while retelling messy events, but “Visions and Omens” begins setting up its conflict with little to no nuance. On the side of the government is FBI negotiator Gary Noesner (Michael Shannon) and FBI tactician Mitch Decker (Shea Whigham), with Noesner being the morally upstanding voice of reason who sincerely delivers lines like “This isn’t what I signed up for” and Decker being the shoot first, ask questions later meathead. These two are ideological opposites, and since the series is based off of a book written by the real-life Noesner, Gary is portrayed too altruistically, robbing him of his relatability.
After a glimpse of the beginning of the end of the Branch Davidians, Waco begins nine months prior to the siege with the conflict in Ruby Ridge that also found the FBI at the center of a failed standoff resulting in the loss of innocent lives. Waco centers Ruby Ridge as the event that foreshadowed and eventually led to the failures at Mount Carmel, but that’s underselling the multitude of screw-ups that would take place nine months later. The episode features a scene that suggests the Waco investigation only began as way for the FBI and ATF to get a win after the debacle at Ruby Ridge, complete with obnoxious music cues to highlight the dramatic irony, a terrible cliché of true crime retellings that Waco commits early and often. However, the spliced in real life news broadcasts at least liven up the surprisingly boring crime-before-the-crime.
Thankfully the Branch Davidian side of things keep the premiere interesting. Kitsch, returning to the plains of Texas where he got his start in Friday Night Lights, taps into his old Southern charm and delivers his best performance since his days playing Tim Riggins. Kitsch makes it easy to see why someone could get caught in Koresh’s orbit, but the dark side that Koresh clearly possessed is missing in the premiere. Really, the only layered character we meet is Steve (Paul Sparks), a former theology professor and Koresh’s so-called best friend who is angry and contemplating leaving the compound now that his wife is pregnant with Koresh’s child. The only problem is Steve sincerely believes in David’s messianic claims. Unfortunately, Waco spends too much time exploring Steve’s conflicting emotions and not enough looking at Steve’s wife Judy (Andrea Riseborough). Judy was forced to sleep with a man who wasn’t her husband, a fact that she tearfully tries to relay to her husband during his own outburst, but the episode never even tries to have a quiet moment with Judy where we see the psychological fallout that something so irregular would cause.
The best moments of the episode happen between Koresh and new Mount Carmel arrival David Thibodeau (Rory Caulkin). After meeting before one of Koresh’s cover band’s sets (a quirky aside that’s actually quite effective at characterizing the cult leader), Koresh lures Thibodeau in with the warmth and kindness of your local youth pastor. Caulkin is effective as the audience surrogate, unassuming with an almost mysterious wounded quality that makes it believable when Thibs decides to stay at Mount Carmel, even after David Koresh starts talking about how he’s taken on “the burden of sex” for all of his followers.
Even with some thin characterization, the cast is star-studded and delivering their A-game. Before the guns start firing and the flames begin to burn, Waco will be wise to let their stellar actors have some quiet conversations like Koresh and Thibodeau have on that roof. What the series needs less of is the heavy-handed foreshadowing and the simplistic “X leads to Y” plotting that cheapens the intricacy of this catastrophe. Waco is a solid enough start for the Paramount Network, but it’s going to need to be better if it wants to live up to the young network’s mission statement.