TV Review: Strong Performances Save ‘Waco’ From Mediocrity

While some have surprisingly mourned the end of Spike TV, the new Paramount Network looks to have promise. Paramount is officially in the TV game, and they swung for the fences their first time out. Building on TV’s general interest in controversial historical moments of the 1990’s, “Waco” details the events behind the historic standoff. Michael Shannon and Taylor Kitsch lead a series loaded with talent. The result is a series that features strong performances, yet lacks the directorial creativity to stand out in the modern TV landscape.

With an all-star cast in tow, the mini-series follows the FBI siege of the Branch Davidian compound in 1993. In charge of the Davidians is David Koresh (Kitsch), a man of considerable charisma who has gathered hundreds of people to his cause. After a botched raid leaves over a dozen dead, a 51-day standoff ensues. After the initial raid, FBI negotiator Gary Noesner (Shannon) struggles to keep the peace between the Davidians and his FBI counterparts (Glenn Fleshler and Shea Whigham).  The result of the standoff is one of the most controversial acts of the U.S. government in the 1990s, resulting in the deaths of over 90 men, women, and children.

Kitsch really goes for it in this performance, donning an accent and playing up the off-kilter personality of Koresh. He is at once eccentric, but also extremely narcissistic in his actions. We are certainly told he has charisma in the show, but we are not shown how Koresh gained his followers. The only two individuals we see actively recruited by Kitsch are David Thibodeau (Rory Culkin) and FBI Agent Jacob Vazquez (John Leguizamo). However, the rest of the Davidians’ draw to Koresch is handled through exposition drops that do not serve the story well.

Shannon does a solid job in one of his subtler roles in recent memory. Shannon still rises to the occasions when called to do so, but the majority of his performance requires him to stay calm and collected. There’s a pessimism that carries over from the Ruby Ridge standoff that carries through the show, giving Shannon one of the only complete arcs in the series. As the season progresses, Shannon literally sheds his FBI uniform. It’s a solid performance, but due to the subtle work he’s doing, will not be one of his iconic roles.

The rest of the cast turns out strong performances. Andrea Risborough, Melissa Benoist, and Julie Garner play Koresh’s wives. Each is motivated to help or protect Koresh, yet they all show internal doubt in their husband. Benoist is the surprising revelation, delivering a powerful role as matriarch to all the women. Garner and Risborough marriages to other men create division in the Davidians. Risborough is strong early in the season but becomes one dimensional when the writers can’t figure out how to use her. Garner cements herself as one of television’s breakout stars in 2018 with a nuanced and leveled performance.

Paul Sparks is excellent here and really shoulders the Branch Davidian narrative for long stretches of time. Sparks brings humanity Steve Schneider and makes him a relatable man in the process. However, we are told about Steve’s path to David rather than shown how their friendship came to exist. This causes the audience to question Schneider’s true motivations and beliefs. Sparks sells the desperation and intelligence of Schneider, which makes him one of the standouts of the show.

While the performances are solid, there are holes in the storytelling. While 6 episodes is probably the right length for this show, the siege begins too early. Using Ruby Ridge as the starting point for the events of the show drops the timetable for the season inside of a year. Yet the relationships on display were forged over a much longer timeframe. This forces several awkward exposition drops to explain why so many have chosen to follow David. However, a stronger route would show us these charismatic qualities, rather than tell us they exist.

Culkin’s Thibodeau is the only character that we witness being enraptured by Koresh. Even then, his initial attraction is due to Koresh’s “rock star” persona (they play a mediocre cover of “My Sharona” together). Instead, we spend upwards of 4 episodes with the raid and ensuing 51-day standoff.  There is character development over these episodes, but frankly, we spend too long in the compound with an unlikable Koresh. The show attempts to paint sympathy for the Davidians and their leader, which only half works. Rather than have us buy-in on Koresh, the show’s focus on an inept and overly powerful government doesn’t really achieve what the show is hoping to say. All in all, the writing, unfortunately, lets the rest of the production down.

“Waco” is another show that believes it has a lot to say but does so with little subtly. With lesser actors, this show would likely have been a slog. However, Kitsch, Shannon, and the rest of the crew elevate the material in every scene. Despite wanting more show and less tell, the series is compelling television. The episode length makes it a highly bingeable series and shows promise for the Paramount Network going forward.

What did you think of “Waco?” Let us hear in the comments below! 

“Waco” is available to stream through the Paramount Network. It is also available to rent or buy through Amazon, Vudu, and iTunes. 

GRADE: (★★)