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'Waco' Is Wack

Paramount Network's historical miniseries misses where contemporary cults connect.

Emerson Rosenthal

The Paramount Network

The most famous footage of David Koresh features the bespectacled leader of the Branch Davidians slouched against an unadorned wall, speaking directly into a camera provided by FBI agents amid the fateful 51-day standoff. "Being an American first, I'm the kind of guy that will stand in front of a tank," he says unblinkingly, neither antagonizing nor exaggerating. He's deadly serious when he says, "You can run over me, but I'll be biting one of the tracks. No one's gonna hurt me or my family. That's American policy."

At its heart, the Waco siege that resulted in the deaths of 76 people (including Koresh) sublimated an issue that had all but bubbled over by the time ATF agents stormed the burned-out cult compound on April 19, 1993: the point at which citizens' rights to self-determination end, and the rights of the state to serve its impression of people's interests begin.

It's the fundamental conflict that grounds every fight over abortion, gun control, and taxation today—which is why it's so disappointing that the meandering first episode of the Paramount Network's Waco miniseries concerns itself more with a marginally recognizable cast and being "ripped from the headlines." These concerns take center stage, rather than the dreams, fears, and hopes that could ignite a long-overdue conversation between a government of the people and the people it purportedly serves—a conversation that feels especially needed now.

On paper, the cast is very strong. Haunted heartthrob Taylor Kitsch stars as Koresh opposite the looming Michael Shannon as FBI negotiator Gary Noesner. But the veil-piercing, thousand-yard stare Kitsch hardened in the underrated second season of True Detective is flattened here, making a mullet-wearing musician out of a minister whose remaining followers still await his resurrection 24 years later. Shannon does his best to portray a man torn between a genuine desire to save people and an increasingly militarized police force, but a particularly trite "Bad day at work, honey?" moment at home in Waco's first episode—literally following the Ruby Ridge catastrophe—all but ensured that he's just along for the ride.

Character-actor mainstay Shea Whigham is reduced to "git'er done" levels of gumption as FBI hostage rescue agent Richard M. Rogers; a desperately uninventive decision to cast Julia Garner as Waco victim Michele Jones turns the talented Electrick Children actress into a manic-pixie-cult-girl. Yet again, producers picked the wrong Culkin in their casting of Rory as David Thibodeau—and where's Janet Reno in all this, too?

But the biggest problem with Waco isn't the casting—in fact, I'll keep watching just to see the indefatigable John Leguizamo, who wrote one of the sharpest Hollywood critiques of 2017, as undercover ATF agent Robert Rodriguez. Waco's biggest issue is the writing, which loses the plot at levels that evince the "we know better"-ism of most politicians and pundits during the 2016 presidential campaign. Gone are the pathos that turned a dyslexic Texas pastor into a prophet, as well as the level of devotion that made his male followers take vows of celibacy while Koresh alone had children with their wives. All but missing is the urgency of law officials to assert their prudence over a population perceived to be growing increasingly irrational.

The constant use of medium shots featuring little to no narrative-supporting elements in the background suggest that we'll never get close to people whose ghosts still resolutely haunt the American psyche. In a "ripped from the headlines" television landscape with the award-winning performances of The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story on one side, and even the memorable production design of Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders on the other, Waco feels like a whiff that won't get another do-over. Despite the opportunity to show the human cost of ideology-plus-weaponry on a larger-than-life level, we sadly end up with something that's hardly dignifying to anyone, least of all the survivors. Their memories, and ours, deserve better, and thus far Waco ultimately suffers from the same thing that made it a tragedy in the first place—caring too much about ideas, and not people.

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