The boom in scripted television has produced an almost insatiable demand for re-examinations of America’s recent past, and the bloody Branch Davidian standoff in Waco, Texas, is a natural fit for this trend. “Waco,” a limited series that tells the story of what happened to David Koresh and his followers 25 years ago, painstakingly lays out the progression of the tragic saga, but it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the drama’s excellent cast is under-utilized throughout.
As the first scripted offering on the new Paramount Network (which replaces Spike TV), “Waco” is a bit more plodding than a drama about an apocalyptic cult should be. Not that sensationalizing the Koresh saga would have been the right move (and there was more than enough misinformation and untrustworthy PR spin about the group at the time). But the Paramount drama doesn’t do enough to flesh out the key motivations that turned the story into an epic tragedy. Both Koresh’s followers and the federal agents determined to take him down were driven by deep and sincere beliefs, but the self-proclaimed prophet’s appeal — and the threats he posed — still remain somewhat difficult to grasp.
Koresh and his motivations are, in the main, treated quite respectfully. Early on, the Branch Davidian leader — a rock musician as well as a preacher — is shown taking a young drummer under his wing, and he seems like a helpful mentor to that young man, as well as a doting father to the many children at his Texas compound. Taylor Kitsch — who first came to prominence in “Friday Night Lights” and is back in Texas as another charismatic rule-breaker — gives Koresh a sincere and well-modulated intensity.
But internal politics among law enforcement types put Koresh’s Waco compound on the radar of the feds. In a series of dry, rudimentary scenes, interagency battles and funding struggles at the ATF and the FBI paint a portrait of agencies that were willing to overstate the danger Koresh and his followers presented. Some thought an assault on the compound would get the ATF a larger budget, and there were reasonable fears about activities at the Mount Carmel complex.
Michael Shannon and Shea Whigham play Gary Noesner and Mitch Decker, FBI agents with very different approaches to standoffs. Noesner is a key negotiator who strives to avoid injury and loss of life, while Decker is portrayed as a man who believes a show of force is the answer to almost every question. But like many of the characters in the drama, the writing for both men lacks nuance. Despite the obvious skills of the actors playing them, the squabbles among ATF and FBI personnel comes off as the kind of routine cop conflicts viewers have seen before.
Even 25 years later, the story still has relevance, especially in light of the ongoing militarization of much of American law enforcement. And of course, some citizens’ distrust of the government and the news media — both of which are shown to have rather self-serving agendas in “Waco” — has only grown. But a core question surrounding the raids — how many guns the Davidians had — isn’t adequately examined in the three episodes sent to critics for review. Nor does one get much of an explanation regarding how Koresh financially supported all his followers, who occupy a large house filled with a number of kids.
Another jarring element is that Koresh’s history of sleeping with underage women — “brides,” in his view — is treated fairly gently, as if, in the grand scheme of things, that part of the story didn’t matter much. Then or now, such behavior would be deeply troubling — if not illegal — but these concerns are briefly raised only to be brushed aside. Michelle Jones (Julia Garner) has a scene in which she complains about having been pushed to have sex with Koresh at a very young age — and she had his child, like many women in the compound. The lack of curiosity about the damage done to the women around Koresh represents a missed opportunity, and it’s even more disappointing given that cast members Garner, Melissa Benoist and Andrea Riseborough are all skilled actors who could have brought the women’s dilemmas into sharp relief.
Dozens were willing to die for Koresh, or risked their lives in the attempt to curb his influence. But despite a partially successful attempt to set the record straight, “Waco” too rarely offers the kind of depth that would make the examination of these powerful motivations compelling.