If you haven’t noticed already on your cable subscription, Spike TV is no more. In its place is the Paramount Network, which promises original TV shows throughout this year (including a remake of “Heathers,” coming March 7) and films pulled directly from their expansive library. About a week into its existence, the channel gets its creative feet wet with the six-episode miniseries “Waco,” starring Taylor Kitsch as David Koresh. It’s an ambitious project from filmmakers John Erick Dowdle and Drew Dowdle as they try to make sense, and great entertainment, out of a famous American mess. But the show creates its own problems in telling this story, especially as it can’t seem to handle the scope.
We all know what happened when members of the Branch Davidian complex clashed with the government in Waco, TX back in 1993. But this series provides almost a procedural look at how the ATF specifically could have been behind such a disaster. As clued in during very dry passages in episode one, after the ATF killed an innocent bystander during a hostage situation (of which Michael Shannon’s dull tough guy Gary Noesner was brought in to negotiate), they needed good press. Meanwhile, Koresh cultivates members of his no-sex, all-community group, and even welcomes a new member named David Thibodeau (Rory Culkin). As “Waco” tells it, part of the siege of Koresh’s Branch Davidians was a bureaucratic move to ensure the ATF’s necessity, which explains the news cameras that were filming when everything started to fall apart.
When “Waco” does get to episode three (the last one provided press), the series certainly picks up. Co-show creators the Dowdle brothers composed this tense idea of anti-empathy in their previous film “No Escape,” which featured American tourists dashing through a city in an unnamed Asian city, after a coup. Those instincts for chaos work well here in “Waco,” which does its best when working on the tension that grows between the Branch Davidians and the ATF. In one of the series’ most striking narrative arcs, John Leguizamo plays an agent named Robert Rodriguez, whose infiltration of the group during their services proves to be a type of brainwashing. But is he wrong when he starts believing that the Branch Davidians are harmless?
“Waco” takes a bold perspective with the debated events of the story, especially when it stops with the slow burn and leads to tense action that affects both sides. The beginning of what became known as the Waco siege is a tense chunk of episode three, in which the Branch Davidians number as more scared than those trying to fight back. It’s also in this passage that the series is primed for the mind games within the idea of “Waco,” where Noesner and Koresh start playing mind games in the public eye.
Further proving himself as a dedicated actor, Kitsch gives his best performance as Koresh, mostly by establishing his sense of genius that could create such a dedicated following. Given the self-appointed disciple nature of Koresh, Kitsch has numerous monologues with and excels with them. He creates a sense of an entertainer, someone who has believably memorized the Bible, but has the physical ability to be intimidating. And yet when Koresh pleads with the ATF, before everything falls apart, that there are women and children inside, his fear is unmistakable. Kitsch provides a very grounded idea of someone who is larger than life, and makes the show all the more tragic.
Kitsch is joined by other actors who do not get to shine as bright: Andrea Riseborough, Rory Culkin, Michael Shannon, Melissa Benoist, Julia Garner, Leguizamo and more. When these performers don’t give memorable turns on a TV show, something is wrong. With the cliche dialogue and the dead-air drama within the group about David’s power over women played by Riseborough, Benoist and Garner, they struggle to make the series more than a half-intriguing non-fiction spectacle, albeit with Kitsch’s strong performance guiding the way. The Paramount Network has found a unique property with this series, but without more dramatic fortification and integrity, the affair will merely be an ambitious effort, instead of a great first impression to be reckoned with across all of cable.