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TV Review: 'Waco'

Jan 25, 2018
Originally published on January 24, 2018 7:35 am
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Television viewers have a chance to relive a notorious chapter in American history. It was a 1993 standoff between the FBI and the Branch Davidian cult in Waco, Texas. A six-part drama called "Waco" begins tonight on the Paramount Network. Here's NPR TV critic Eric Deggans.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: If you only know Taylor Kitsch as that kid from "Friday Night Lights" or from "True Detective's" truly awful second season, you are in for a surprise because Kitsch is mesmerizing as David Koresh, the leader of the Branch Davidians religious sect. He preaches the joy of living in their isolated community of Mount Carmel just outside Waco, Texas.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WACO")

TAYLOR KITSCH: (As David Koresh) So how is it a man can find joy here? Joy doesn't come from having something or being something. It comes from becoming, becoming more than you are today.

DEGGANS: At first, Koresh comes off as a well-meaning guy who likes playing guitar in a local band. But it soon becomes obvious the Branch Davidians have a different way of living. All the men except Koresh are celibate, and the women serve as his wives, including the teenage sister of Karesh's legal wife played by Julia Garner. She's beginning to have doubts about the arrangement.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WACO")

JULIA GARNER: (As Michelle Jones) When David had his vision that he should take me as his second wife and nobody knew what to do about it. And just like that, I became his second wife. And just like that, I had serenity. And, I mean, what about my dream? Who cared anything about my dreams?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) Hasn't David been good to you?

GARNER: (As Michelle Jones) That's not the point.

DEGGANS: The point of many scenes in the first episode of "Waco" is to humanize the Branch Davidians until they run afoul of federal agents looking for good publicity who have heard of Koresh's polygamy and know the group is stockpiling weapons. There's a good guy among the feds. Michael Shannon - for once not playing a bug-eyed sociopath - is FBI negotiator Gary Noesner, who pushes his boss to spend more resources on training agents to negotiate instead of using force.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WACO")

MICHAEL SHANNON: (As Gary Noesner) There's a paradox to power. The more force you bring to a situation, the more likely you are to meet resistance. If we can spend some of those resources training agents to negotiate, I guarantee you that you would invest a lot less in body bags.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) We can't talk our way out of every situation. Show of force helps bring people to the negotiating table.

DEGGANS: That's a handy bit of foreshadowing for what's to come - a botched raid on the Branch Dravidians that produces a 51-day standoff and, eventually, scores of deaths. In the first three episodes shown to critics, "Waco" seems to downplay the extremism of Koresh and his people. It blurs the question of whether Koresh was dangerously crazy, a con-man or a well-meaning-but-deluded soul. It also highlights the cluelessness and cowboy tactics of the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, who created a dangerous siege with a group that was already anticipating the end of the world.

The whole project is a bold move for the Paramount Network, which just last week changed its name from the young male-focused cable channel Spike TV. With names like Kitsch, Shannon, John Leguizamo and "Supergirl" star Melissa Benoist in the cast, "Waco" plays like a mid-level film carved into six parts. It's a well-chosen project for a cable channel that needs a hit to redefine itself as the home of more adult-oriented, high-quality fare. The result is a compelling, tragic tale that allows stars like Kitsch and Shannon to play different, surprising roles, just like the new cable channel that's featuring the show. I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF WILLIAM AUGUST HUNT'S "THESE BOOTS ARE MADE FOR WALKING")

TORI LETZLER: (Singing) These boots are made for walking. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.