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Waco - Advance Preview

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*In the interest of full disclosure, the following preview is based on episodes of the six-part mini-series Waco, which premieres, tonight at 10/9c pm, on the new Paramount Network made available for review. A full review of this series will appear at the conclusion of the series run.

In February 1993, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) conducted a raid on a religious community located near Waco, TX. The initial raid on leader David Koresh and his followers, the Branch Davidians, resulted in the deaths of four ATF agents and six civilians, and dozens wounded. A 51-day standoff ensued and ended after an FBI assault led to a massive fire that engulfed the religious compound killing 76 men, women and children. This was a dark and tragic note in American history and a risky undertaking to be presented as the first and most high-profile presentation of the new Paramount Network. A risky undertaking, yes, but one that pays off in big ways.

I, sadly, remember watching these events unfold on television and remember wondering what was truly happening inside those buildings. This six-part mini-series finally gives me something of an answer to my question. Based on two books, A Place Called Waco: A Survivor's Story By David Thibodeau & Leon Whiteson and Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator By Gary Noesner, what producers John Erick Dowdle and Drew Dowdle have created is a gripping, uncompromising story told from inside the Branch Davidian compound. From the intense opening moments, the series grabs your attention and never lets go. You become so caught up in events and invested in these characters you're disappointed as each episode ends. You can't wait to see what happens next. This is thanks in large part to an outstanding cast and no-holds-barred scripts.

Taylor Kitsch (Friday Night Lights) becomes nearly unrecognizable as he immerses himself into the role of David Koresh, Leader of the Branch Davidians. Kitsch perfectly plays Koresh as part con-man and a man who truly believed himself the Messiah he proclaimed to be. He effortlessly moves through Koresh’s many unpredictable moods, one-minute charming, and charismatic, the next moody with just that slight hint of evil lurking underneath. It’s a powerful performance that required the actor to make you believe his followers would hang on his every word and Kitsch nails it. He also shares a wonderful on-screen chemistry with Melissa Benoist who plays his first wife Rachel. There is a nice rhythm to their scenes together.

Academy Award®, Golden Globe® and Tony Award® nominated Michael Shannon (The Shape of Water) is outstanding as FBI negotiator Gary Noesner. His is the character one could develop the most sympathy for. He comes to the scene in Waco as a man that appears to be at a crossroads in his career, then quickly finds himself caught between the power struggles of agencies involved and the Branch Davidian's distrust of law enforcement.

Emmy® Award-winner John Leguizamo portrays Jacob Vazquez, an FBI agent sent undercover to infiltrate the compound, but soon finds himself bonding with the people he meets there. They strike a strong enough cord in him, welcoming him into their “family” that it creates great conflict for the character. That conflict pushes him to make a choice at a critical moment between what he's ordered to do and what he feels is right. Leguizamo does great understated work with a small role that was created just for the series.

However, the breakout performance of Waco could likely be that of Melissa Benoist (Supergirl) as Rachel Koresh, David's first wife and recognized matriarch of the Mount Carmel religious community. At first, Rachel seems quiet and unassuming, then you quickly learn how she carefully operates behind the scenes. In Benoist's performance, she turns Rachel into the character that most intrigues you. There is so much more going on behind her eyes and you're struck by how smart the character is, becoming not only David's wife but his confidant and advisor and one of the few women whom he respected. In recent interviews, the producers admitted Rachel's role was originally much smaller but quickly expanded it once they saw Benoist's take on the character.

Production aspects of the mini-series are excellent as well as they eerily recreated Mount Carmel, the Branch Davidian compound. Many of the scenes seem to be shot through a hazy, golden filter making you feel you're there in that dusty, isolated part of Texas.From cinematography to the action sequences, all are outstanding aspects of this Paramount Network ambitious undertaking. What transpired over those 51 days remains one of the most misunderstood stories in American history. Waco has come to evoke different ideas to different people – government recklessness, religious fanaticism, conspiracy theories, and cover-ups. Regardless of where you stand on the event, this six-hour version of Waco is well worth your time and viewing investment.

Watch the first episode, premiering January 24, 2018, on the Paramount Network, then come here to discuss what you liked or didn't like about the production.

*Please keep comments confined to the production and show Waco.

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