'Waco': TV Review

Takes a thin "Government versus the Little Guy" perspective on history.

Paramount Network's six-hour miniseries is unnervingly sympathetic to David Koresh and is carried by an ensemble including Taylor Kitsch, Michael Shannon and John Leguizamo.

The most famous crimes of the '90s are recent enough that viewers in the key demographic remember certain details vividly, younger viewers won't feel like they're wallowing too far in the distant past and enough time has gone by that smart writers are able to gain perspective.

That's why every established and emerging broadcast and cable network has been getting into the '90s true crime genre. OJ. The Unabomber. Menendez. Versace. Coming up this spring, we have USA delving into the murders of Tupac and Biggie. And starting Wednesday night, the fledgling Paramount Network is hoping to make its name with a six-episode, star-studded take on 1993's Waco siege from John Erick Dowdle and Drew Dowdle (No Escape).

Definitely the stars are the reason to check out Waco. With Taylor Kitsch, Michael Shannon, John Leguizamo and Rory Culkin leading the way, Waco boasts an ensemble worth building a cult around and a historical perspective that had me tearing my hair out.

Waco starts on Feb. 28, 1993. That's when the 51-day siege at the Branch Davidian compound began with a tragic and botched ATF raid. The story goes back to introduce us to David Koresh (Kitsch), amateur guitarist and gifted interpreter of the book of revelations. Through the eyes of newcomer David Thibodeau (Culkin), whose book is one of several sources for the Dowdles, we're taken to the Mount Carmel Center, where Koresh lectures on the Seven Seals, preaches abstinence to his male followers and puts in the sacrifice to attempt to impregnate all of his wives, including original missus Rachel (Melissa Benoist), troubling Michelle (Julia Garner) and the spirited Judy (Andrea Riseborough), whom he plucked from friend and follower Steve Schneider (Paul Sparks), a theology scholar.

On the other side, Shannon plays FBI negotiator Gary Noesner, still smarting from the failures at Ruby Ridge and frustrated that the Bureau seems to be becoming more military and less law enforcement. Leguizamo plays one of the agents who, in the process of staking out the compound, is welcomed to parties and prayer meetings and gives viewers another point-of-entry to learn about Koresh's teachings.

At a TCA press tour earlier this month, John Erick Dowdle said, "We kept saying we wanted to do the 'no bad guys' version of this." This is the familiar corrective to the news coverage of the moment, which emphasized the nefarious practices by Koresh and his followers and avoided the unmistakable miscalculations by law enforcement, the tragic and avoidable escalation. That may have been the initial spin, but there was an almost immediate backlash among right-wing fringe groups and even not-so-fringe right-wing groups that painted Waco and also Ruby Ridge as further proof of government encroachment on individual freedoms.

In the miniseries, Thibodeau makes that case and, frankly, articulates the thesis of the first three hours of the miniseries when he says, "I feel like we've gotta call 911, but who do you call when it's your own government attacking?"

This is not the "no bad guys" version of the story at all. In one story beat after another, FBI and ATF officials prioritize violence over negotiation, concentrate on public relations over empathy and actively ignore the few contentious agents who plead moderation. And I'm not saying that's incorrect, but let me offer the counter-proposal that maybe there actually were people who made mistakes on both sides?

The Dowdles go out of the way to insulate Koresh and his followers against misdeeds. Did they have guns that were illegal? Yes, but when Koresh says they were never going to use them, that's the gospel as far as the miniseries is concerned. Did David Koresh "marry" and impregnate significantly underage girls? Yes, but the way that's depicted here, the marriages were illegal-but-consensual since Rachel got a message from God that she sincerely believes and the series sincerely accepts. We never see any crimes being committed and the polygamy and statutory rape are just plot points to force a sham compound marriage between Thibodeau and Michelle. At the time there were accusations of abuse and sexual misconduct leveled against Koresh and subsequent evidence has been spotty and you wouldn't even know those accusations existed based on the miniseries. The show's sympathies are inside the compound at every point.

The treatment of Koresh is as a caring, sympathetic Biblical scholar — a Biblical genius, even! — whose interest in guns and jailbait and the upcoming apocalypse is sane, sincere and decently intentioned. It doesn't especially matter if you, as a viewer, believe anything he's saying because in the miniseries, he does.

Having dropped weight and raised the timbre of his voice, Kitsch is quite convincing as Koresh. He plays Koresh as genuine, if not saintly, and that laconic Tim Riggins charisma is put to good use, or icky use if you keep waiting for the miniseries to find anything Koresh does problematic.

If your favorite version of Shannon involves unpredictable line readings and a dangerous intensity, this is a safer, yet still intense, TV version, at least in the early going. He comes across as intelligent and conflicted, matched with Leguizamo playing sensitive and conflicted. All non-conflicted FBI and ATF get one-dimensional treatment. Inside the compound, Culkin has a welcome sweetness and Garner (Ozark) continues her streak of making me wish her characters were the focus of things and not support to troubled men.

After the in media res opening, Waco has a clunky couple episodes that fail to really depict the passage of time cleanly and probably will leave many viewers confused as to which agencies are making which blunders, even if they have their initials on their jackets. The third episode gets back into the initial raid in harrowing, well-directed style and it may give me enough momentum to watch the second half of the series, just to see if David Koresh ever does anything wrong.

Cast: Taylor Kitsch, Michael Shannon, Melissa Benoist, Julia Garner, John Leguizamo, Andrea Riseborough, Rory Culkin, Paul Sparks, Shea Whigham
Creators: John Erick Dowdle and Drew Dowdle
Premieres: Wednesday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (Paramount Network)