It’s been 25 years since 76 members of a religious sect died, horribly, in a fire at their rural Texas compound following a 51-day standoff with law enforcement. At the time, the Waco Seige dominated headlines, and updates on the status of the standoff were must-see-TV back when 24-hour news networks were still young. Waco, the new six-part miniseries that dramatizes the fall of the Branch Davidians, is equally as compelling to watch. It’s also extremely unpleasant, because it doesn’t shy away from brutal violence or the uncomfortable reality that this was more than just the story of some crazy cultists.
Tonight, at 10 pm eastern, Waco becomes the first scripted drama on the Paramount Network, a newly rebranded channel that emerged from the ashes of the bro-centric Spike. The limited series is so serious that it’s almost a mission statement: “We are not the Ultimate Fighting or Stripperella channel anymore.” This could be a problem, as television isn’t lacking ultra-grave and serious dramas, but Waco’s handling of a tragic, fascinating, and misunderstood event in fairly recent history elevate things.
Taylor Kitsch of Friday Night Lights fame stars as the leader of the Branch Davidians, David Koresh. He’s skinny, and sporting a distinctly ‘90s (and slightly off-putting) mullet, but you can tell Koresh is a charmer, in his own way. Deeply smart, charismatic, and devoted, showrunners Drew and John Erick Dowdle chose to depict Koresh as a likable person, rather than just the dead cult leader he’s remembered as. But, he still was a cult leader, and Waco deftly toes the line of making him sympathetic even as he’s marrying multiple women, possibly having children with his underage wives, and stockpiling illegal guns.
Those upsetting aspects of Koresh’s religious sect were what got the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives interested, and they wanted to raid this kooky cult to score a much-needed PR win. This didn’t go as planned, and due to a series of blunders and miscommunications, things turned deadly. The 51-day siege is the most endearing aspect of the Waco story, but the miniseries unflinchingly confronts viewers with a bloody and horrifying firefight, one that left several dead on both sides.
Waco doesn’t fully paint the ATF or FBI as the real bad guys, though. Michael Shannon’s FBI negotiator Gary Noesner wants to understand the Branch Davidians, and desperately wants to avoid further bloodshed. Sadly, there’s not enough of that understanding to go around, and Waco agonizingly shows how that, in and of itself, is a tragedy.
This is not The People v. O. J. Simpson, another recent look at a big ‘90s event. That great show had dramatic moments and offered insights into the case that, in some respects, defined the time period, but it was fun to watch. (David Schwimmer sure said “Juice” a bunch of times while playing Kim Kardashian’s dad!) Waco doesn’t have that.
The biggest thing missing from popular conceptions of the Waco Seige was the graphic understanding of how senseless and sad all everything was. If Waco’s hard to watch, that’s kind of the point. It always should’ve been hard to watch.
Waco premieres on Wednesday at 10 p.m. Eastern on the Paramount Network.