Waco: The A-List Cast Saves It From Being a Tired Retread of Better Shows

Taylor Kitsch in Waco
Photo Credit: Paramount Network

As someone that has lived in Waco the past four years, the feeling surrounding Waco as Paramount Network’s flagship program about David Koresh and the Branch Davidians had been mixed. The feeling about Waco has improved lately — thanks, Fixer Upper! — but the stain Koresh’s religious cult remains. Having a show aiming to join the ranks of prestige TV with the city’s namesake can either turn the narrative or stoke the “have you joined the cult” jokes more.

After Wednesday’s premiere, the reception much like the direction of the show remains unclear.

Directed by John Erick Dowdle (As Above, So Below; No Escape) and penned by his producing partner Drew Dowdle, it has the feeling of a half dozen shows without making a distinct mark itself. At least, not yet. It’s not atypical of pilot episodes but there’s no true sense of where it wants to go yet as the story’s two main sides haven’t met yet.

There are shades of Hulu’s excellent The Path but Waco has hardly begun to scratch the surface of its cult unlike Hulu’s series. Considering the historical context, there are also inadvertent vibes of last year’s Manhunt: Unabomber. And like any recent crime series, it wants to be cut from the same cloth as True Detective and Fargo. Waco is an amalgam of all those and has even borrowed the Fargo’s composer Jeff Russo who helps inject life in otherwise aimless scenes.

What it has going for it at the moment is a stellar cast selling what looks to be a story wide in scope. For being named after the town that’s been a punchline for the past 20 years, it is taking important steps to try to lay the groundwork. Waco isn’t “Waco” without the FBI and ATF’s troubles like the 11-day siege at Ruby Ridge. How far the historical context goes beyond that and the show zeros in on Waco (though, its actually the surrounding town of Elk. Waco was just the city the media was housed and reported from) remains to be seen, but the steps are there, perhaps just out of order and seemingly directionless.

Before its poor man’s True Detective title sequence, the show begins with a scene presumably near the show’s end. Koresh (Taylor Kitsch) is running around his crazed house, nervous about the FBI’s presence outside. He runs out and yells that there are women and children inside to avoid open fire. That’s the hook. The flashback trope does little to reel in the audience, especially under the assumption viewers already know the background of the story.

The story cuts to nine months earlier — a tiring trope — that would have served the story much better. If the goal is to reconstruct the mythos of Koresh, the following scene with him waking up and playing with one of his sons would be of greater service. Koresh is humanized throughout the episode, explaining his lack of a parental figure among other issues leading to his self-proclaimed “hell hole.” Kitsch’s humble and charismatic performance only fuels that and is among his most impressive work to date.

Against the backdrop of Ruby Ridge, FBI negotiator Gary Noesner (Michael Shannon) is introduced for some important context not only about the ATF and FBI but also the pulse of the nation. But it begs the question why this wasn’t the first stepping stone of the show? It cuts deeper than the non-introduction and casts a duality with Koresh and Noesner as the latter notes, “How you say something matters more than what you say.”

If Shannon hasn’t already proven it in Nocturnal Animals, his turn here as the contemplative and quick-witted FBI agent, he’d make for a killer addition to True Detective. This is a welcomed return to the small screen since Boardwalk Empire left. It’s restrained performance and far removed from the majority of his more brooding work in cinema but it’s a welcomed that pairs well with Koresh without even sharing the screen yet.

Shannon and Kitsch are not alone, though. Another Boardwalk alum Paul Sparks finds himself in the spotlight as Koresh’s closest friend, Steve Schneider who’s reaching a breaking point as his wife is pregnant with Koresh’s baby. Sparks has become typecast as dry, clinical characters but spreads his wings here with a greater emotional arc and is an early scene-stealer.

Through its first 47 minutes, Waco proves to be a new vehicle for its actors more than anything. It’s never a good sign when the TV adverts for the show during its own commercial breaks create more intrigue than the show itself. But by the time the credits roll and Koresh sees John Leguizamo’s unnamed character moving in across the road, there’s a new sense of anticipation for the next chapter to unfold. 

Overall Rating: 6.5 out of 10

Waco airs Wednesday nights on Paramount

-Sean Cordy

Founded in September 2009, The Pop Break is a digital pop culture magazine that covers film, music, television, video games, books and comics books and professional wrestling.