The problem with historical dramas like Paramount Network’s Waco is you already know what’s going to happen – The Titanic will surely sink taking sprout-faced Leonardo DiCaprio with it and Apollo 13’s astronauts will, malheureusement, survive. Therefore, it is vital to find an intriguing aspect of the story that hasn’t been told before.

Eagle-eyed viewers may have noticed that Waco sets out its stall before the opening titles are done with as the texts reveal that writer/PD brothers, Drew and John Erick Dowdle have adapted David Thibodeau’s Waco: A Siege Survivor’s Story AND FBI negotiator Gary Noesner’s Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator.

No sooner does the pilot episode, Visions and Omens begin and we know we shall be watching both the Branch Davidians’ version of events and the FBI’s. “This should be an intriguing angle,” I thought, “I’m in…”

A cross between three of 2017’s best shows, Manhunter and Unabomber taking down The Leftovers Guilty Remnant cult. Bring it!

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As we all know what went down in Waco (I remember avidly following it on the BBC in 1993,) the story can begin in medias res – Koresh’s first establishing scene ending with him calmly walking outside to talk to the FBI and ATF swat teams; the first thrilling shot is fired before the story jumps nine months back in time.

Gary Noesner, FBI negotiator is teaching a class of underlings (one of whom, of course, gets his kidnapper killed) for the most obvious Quantico classroom set up imaginable.

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Doubly frustrating is the fact that Michael Shannon dials in his performance from Arkansas.

I recently wrote how Damnation brilliantly set its stall out by populating its world with agents of order and disorder. Here, Waco tries but fails repeatedly. Taylor Kitsch does make amends for his part in the awful True Detective season two by capturing David Koresh’s inherent charisma (which, I’m assuming cult leaders need) and beatific serenity. Unfortunately, Kitsch’s performance, with his soft southern accent, is the only element of the show that shines.

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Noesner is sent to Idaho to deal with the Ruby Ridge debacle, but his home life is haunted by the fact that his FBI comrades pinned blame for the masacre of Randy Weaver’s wife and young son at the hands of an FBI sniper. It works… on paper.

As per Davidian law, Koresh has impregnated best friend Steve’s wife Judy, tearing their relationship apart and causing friction between the two, supposed buddies. It works… on paper.

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Drifter David Thibodeau (Rory Culkin) joins the fray when he fills in for a waylaid drummer in Koresh’s rock band. The rest is obvious – he stays the night at the Texas camp and, just as he’s told he must become celebate, flirty young, little-old-me-butter-wouldn’t-melt Ruth (Julia Garner) from Ozark arrives. It works… on paper.

 

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Everything that should happen, does happen. Just not very well. While I quite enjoyed the pilot, I needed to understand why it was probably all working on paper, but not in the execution.

Then I recalled the titles revealed that John Erick Dowdle had directed and co-wrote this pilot, I remembered something else; my own, lone mantra that few would understand nor agree with.

It takes a hell of a storyteller to write and direct.

Despite having written and directed Owen Wilson’s No Escape (filmed in my home town of Chiang Mai, Thailand) and helming 2010’s impressive M. Night Shyamalan story Devil… John Erick Dowdle is not one hell of a storyteller but a very pedestrian, paint-by-numbers one.

What else would you expect from someone who attended an all-boys, military, Catholic highschool in Minnesota? With that background, it will be interesting to see whether he sides with the Cultists or the Feds. 

Waco continues on Paramount Network tonight, Wednesday, January 31st.

 

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