Ever since the success of FX’s The People Vs. O.J., Hollywood has fallen in love with more or less adapting 90s tabloid stories into prestige dramas/Oscar contenders. In the span of just two years, The Menendez Brothers (Law & Order: The Menendez Murders), Unabomber (Manhunt: Unabomber), Jonbenet Ramsey (too many documentaries to count) and Tonya Harding (I, Tonya) have been brought back to the screen, and now
Spike TV The Paramount Network is doing the same for David Koresh and Waco, Texas via its 6-episode limited series simply titled Waco. At this point, a Janet Reno-Elian Gonzalez mini-series can’t be too far behind. This mini-trend is of a piece with Hollywood’s preference to finance projects which can play to built-in audiences. The big film studios have comic book movies and sequels for that; the indie studios and TV networks have an entire decade of sensationalistic news stories to choose from.
But what makes these tales from the past so tantalizing is how they all happened right before the internet exploded. We were still getting our news in bits and pieces from print and TV, which was undergoing a revolutionary movement toward around-the-clock content and infotainment. The passage of time now allows us to learn what TV news got wrong, which is usually a lot, and better understand the larger significance of it all. The ladder element is especially important for any viewers too young to remember or to have even lived through any of these events. For example, the O.J. Simpson trial suddenly mattered again two years ago because of the role it played in the evolution of news and history of race in America.
Waco’s assertion of why its story matters right now is a bit more blunt than usual – in the pilot, characters repeatedly spell the themes out for us, which gives the opening hour an occasionally clunky feel. Overall, though, there’s a lot of promise here, enough to probably propel Waco into being one of the more compulsively watchable limited series events of the year.
The history, for those who either don’t know or don’t remember, is that in 1993 the federal government engaged in a 51-day standoff with suspected cult leader Koresh at his Waco, Texas compound which had been dubbed Mount Carmel. He and his followers believed the Second Coming was imminent and that other religions had lost sight of that. So, they walled themselves off from society to prepare for the return of the Lord and viewed Koresh as the chosen one to lead them to Heaven. However, they also stockpiled an alarming number of weapons and practiced polygamy, with everyone in the cult other than Koresh and his multiple wives taking a vow of celibacy. These twin factors were enough to alarm the federal government, but the ensuing stand-off and 86 combined deaths went ridiculously too far in some people’s eyes. It directly led to the rise in right-wing militias and kicked off debates about religious freedom, gun control, and government overreach/culpability.
Other than all that, sounds like it should make for a fun, lighthearted TV series, right?
Yeah, not so much. That ship sailed for good the second they cast Michael Shannon to play FBI hostage negotiator Gary Noesner. In one of the opening scenes, Noesner smirks in mid-conversation with a superior at Quantico and because it’s Shannon it’s one of the more chilling facial expressions you’ll ever see even though it’s simply supposed to be his character half-laughing at a joke. However, also because it’s Shannon there’s an intensity to him which captures you and won’t let go.
Shannon’s opposite on the series is Taylor Kitsch (the one-time John Carter from Mars), playing Koresh as kind of a surfer-dude prophet, easygoing and approachable, but undeniably compelling and persuasive when preaching to his congregation. Similar to Manhunt’s dual story of Ted Kaczynski (Paul Bettany) and the FBI Agent who caught him, Jim Fitzgerald (Sam Worthington), it’s apparent right away that Waco will be most concerned with Noesner and Koresh, helped, of course, by the fact that those characters are played by the biggest names in the cast.
There’s a Culkin (Rory) in the supporting cast as well as some recognizable faces like Supergirl’s Melissa Benoist (as Koresh’s primary wife) and Black Mirror’s Andrea Riseborough (as one of Koresh’s secondary wives). The coming episodes will even bring John Leguizamo as an FBI agent sent to infiltrate Mount Carmel.
Written and directed by show co-creators John and Drew Dowdle, the pilot’s primary goal is to establish what life is like for Koresh (e.g., he wakes up every morning to sternly, but lovingly workout with his son, the pair making sure to not wake up Benoist before they go) and how a somewhat more forgotten hostage standoff at Ruby Ridge, Idaho set the stage for the FBI’s treatment of Koresh. These dual goals are realized quite beautifully, with the pilot proving to be at its most effective in its depiction of just how persuasive Koresh could be when trying to convert a wayward soul into his flock (Rory Culkin’s character). Near the end, when Roesner despairs to his wife about the FBI’s cover-up of the fuck-up at Ruby Ridge we can already sense that this might all be building to an overall message of just avoidable the Waco stand-off was.
It will, of course, be especially interesting to see how the series depicts the deadly final moments in Mount Carmel as there remains much debate to this day over what exactly happened there, but the fact that we don’t seem to trust the FBI’s account of the events might just entirely be the point of the series. Waco was a crucial moment in fostering deep doubt and disdain for the government in rural America. While the series makes that point a tad too bluntly at times, it still does so quite effectively and has everything we expect from prestige dramas these days, namely that in feel, look, and performance it might as well be a (highly bingable) 6-hour movie.
Have you watched Waco yet? Let me know in the comments.
RANDOM PARTING THOUGHT
- Does anyone remember this?