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Throwback Thursday- Waco - Series Review: Paramount's Risk Brings Riveting Series



April, 2020- Among the many titles Netflix recently added to their service was the chilling Paramount Network mini-series Waco about David Koresh and the tragedy at the Branch Davidian compound. The mini-series is finding a new audience and was one of Netflix’s top viewed programs last week. Here, in a special Throwback Thursday review is my original review of the program when it first aired in 2018.

Paramount Television Network should be proud that they took a big risk on choosing the Waco mini-series from producers, the Dowdle brothers, as the premier event to launch their new network. The siege at the Mount Carmel compound between the Branch Davidians and the FBI remains a much-debated event and marks one of the most tragic days in American history. The 51-day standoff resulted in a massive fire that engulfed the religious compound killing 76 men, women, and children. But, the risk pays off. Waco, the mini-series, while not perfect, is six hours of intense and gripping television. The uncompromising production pulls no punches in its graphic depiction of the initial gun battle that resulted in the deaths of four ATF agents and six civilians. Equally as riveting is the final assault on the compound with tear gas resulting in the horrific fire that claimed so many lives. The writers and creators put the viewers in the center of these horrifying events with a startling realism. The dry, dusty Texas surroundings of the compound are expertly recreated. Action sequences are shot with a controlled frenzy, while sound and lighting are most effectively used to show the effects on the FBI's use of psychological torture on the Davidians trapped inside.

While the production values excelled there were weaknesses in the production. Some of the more prurient aspects of exactly what went on inside the compound, i.e. Koresh's open polygamy, and numerous reports of child abuse are glossed over. Producers, repeatedly stated their efforts to try to show both sides of the story based on two books, A Place Called Waco: A Survivor's Story by David Thibodeau (played by Cory Kulkin) and Leon Whiteson, and Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator by Gary Noesner (played by Academy Award®, Golden Globe® and Tony® nominated actor Michael Shannon). They created carefully blurred lines between the good guys and the bad guys, however, it was not hard to see clear tendency to come down on the side of the Davidians as to who was at fault. For a series that did try hard to pay attention to details, their lack of attention to one important detail was a glaring error. In their single scene featuring an on-screen appearance by U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, the producers chose 5'4" actress Connie Ventress to play the 6'2" Reno. Thanks to great makeup and costuming she closely resembled Reno, however, the problem came when they had her stand up and leave a meeting with the SAC and HRT leaders. Naturally, the men stood up, but they ended up towering over her, shattering the illusion. This problem could have easily been handled by having her remain seated and dismiss the men and have them leave the room.

Where Waco shines, however, is in powerful, committed performances from its cast. Never was this truer, than in the concluding hours of the series. Episode 5, called "Stalling for Time" was a standout episode for both Taylor Kitsch (as David Koresh) and Shannon (as Gary Noesner). The episode also featured strong turns from Paul Sparks as Koresh's second in command, Steve Schneider and Camryn Manheim as Balinda Thibodeau, the mother of David Thibodeau. It was the penultimate episode that showed the stand-off was taking its toll on everyone and there were both good guys and bad guys making rash decisions on both sides.

Kitsch immersed himself into the role of David Koresh and it is reported he lost 30 pounds to play the part. By all accounts, David Koresh was not a heroic figure, and Kitsch's work as the part con-man and man who truly believed himself to be a Messiah is sure to garner attention come award season. He easily transitioned between Koresh's mercurial moods. As written in the SpoilerTV preview of the series, he effortlessly moves, moment to moment, from charming and charismatic to the next moment moody with just a hint of evil. Throughout the series, Kitsch's bravura performance made Koresh a character that was imminently watchable. His final two hours, as David's obsession with being the Messiah and his single-minded desire to get his sign from God is both fascinating and disturbing to watch.

If Kitsch has an equal in the mini-series it's Shannon. His portrayal of Gary Noesner is one of the more understated performances this reviewer has seen. His standout episode is clearly Episode 5, not ironically named for his book on which the mini-series is based. Throughout the entire mini-series it was as though Noesner was fighting two battles, reaching David and the Davidians, trying to convince them to come out before more lives were lost, and convincing trigger happy HRT members and the agent in charge that force was not the way to deal with the Davidians. The battle in this episode was more psychological than physical. The FBI and HRT had something to prove, that they could handle situations like this without screwups like previous cases; David was determined to prove himself a messenger from God and was determined to do what he thought best for his followers. Noesner was the man in the middle, and his frustrations with both sides come to a head in this episode. Shannon's performance, like Kitsch, is sure to garner award attention when the time comes, particularly for Episode 5 and his final breakdown in Episode 6 "Day 51", when he returns home having been relieved of duty to see his wife watching the Davidian compound burn on television.

The final hour of Waco (Episode 6 "Day 51") was perhaps one of the most intense hours of television I've ever watched. It was difficult to watch at times. It made you angry, it made you cry, it made you ask why? Why did so many egos get in the way and why did so many people have to die? Melissa Benoist (Rachel Koresh), another of the series' strong performers, delivered the most impactful, heart-rending moments of the entire series. Trapped with her children with some other women of the compound and their children, in an old school bus used as a storm shelter, they all became overcome by the tear-gas inserted by the FBI and the smoke from the subsequent fires that started. The children were the first to succumb, and Rachel's own son lay lifeless on the dirt floor. Fighting the gas and the smoke, she desperately tries to drag his lifeless body near the small gap near the front of the bus to get him near fresh air. As she pulls, she, herself begins to weaken, and in a last gasp attempt, lets out a mournful wail and plea as she tries to save her son. It was a painful and gut-wrenching scene, at times hard to watch but Benoist's brilliant performance made it impossible to turn away. As stated in the latest Spoiler TV Scene of the Week article – She tapped deep into every mother's greatest fear through her facial expressions and that primal reaction makes it one of the standout moments of the entire mini-series.

Yes, Paramount's risk in this difficult project paid off. We may never know what really happened at Waco, on both sides, but with this mini-series perhaps we have a better glimpse into the human side to the faces that dominated the news at the time. Use the comments below to discuss your thoughts about Waco. Please limit the discussion to the series itself. Thank You.

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