Twenty-five years ago a 51-day shootout and weapons raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, left 82 followers of the religious sect and four federal agents dead.
The limited series Waco on the newly minted Paramount Network aims to give a little more depth to a piece of history that's already been analyzed and written about excessively. It's a sprawling, complicated story that begins long before the first shots rang out and didn't end until long after the compound went up in flames, killing dozens including religious leader David Koresh. And the causes, victims and villains are still debated today.
And while many already have closely-held opinions on who was at fault, the scripted series tries to abstain from pointing too many fingers. Creators, producers and brothers John Erick and Drew Dowdle draw heavily from books on both sides: FBI hostage negotiator Gary Noesner's Stalling for Time and Branch Davidian survivor David Thibodeau's A Place Called Waco.
The story of Waco begins and ends with the Branch Davidian's infamous leader. Taylor Kitsch (Friday Night Lights) plays the mulletted Koresh to a creepy good effect. He's warm and welcoming at times, angry and emotional at others. While not a large or foreboding man, there's still a feeling of unease whenever he enters a room.
The series puts its biggest focus on Koresh and his followers, painting the Branch Davidian sect and Mount Carmel compound as a simple, God-fearing community. Without any prior knowledge about Koresh or the events at Waco, it's hard to see what the big deal is about a group of people living together as one big family.
But Waco includes stories of some individual Branch Davidians (Julia Garner, Melissa Benoist, Andrea Riseborough), providing much-needed depth to otherwise faceless followers. It's also a chance for Koresh to destroy his own facade and show exactly why the group was targeted by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms and the FBI — weapons violations, reports of sexual abuse and polygamy.
Michael Shannon (The Shape of Water) is the aforementioned FBI hostage negotiator Gary Noesner, whose want for peaceful negotiations over hostile standoffs put him in direct conflict with other agents. The catastrophic conflict at Waco is teased when Noesner is called in to help end the siege at Ruby Ridge in Idaho, which resulted in three deaths.
Paramount's first original series as a new network sets the bar quite high, but it's a bit more plodding than a drama about a apocalyptic religious sect should be. It's also one of those show where prior knowledge is essential to fully understanding the story. With hundreds of different scripted shows to choose from, having to do homework before watching can be a turn off.
But in the same vein, the siege at Waco was a news and culture-defining event for the U.S. Waco painstakingly lays out the details and players in this saga in an attempt to bring it back into the national conversation.
The standoff at Waco ended with the compound burning to the ground and Koresh and dozens of others dead, destroying the chance at closure. The series may not add anything new to the conversation, but it's a prestige-quality exploration of the echoes of a historic tragedy.
Contact Chelsea Tatham at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @chelseatatham.
10 p.m. Wednesday, Paramount