Marking the 25th anniversary, Waco and messianic leader David Koresh are having a TV moment, drawn by the story’s tawdry mix of salacious elements and bureaucratic overreach. The result is a six-hour miniseries, “Waco,” starring Taylor Kitsch, more notable for its casting than its execution, followed in short order by “Waco: Madman or Messiah,” a four-hour A&E documentary seemingly scheduled to piggyback on all that promotion.
The two actually work somewhat better in concert than alone, inasmuch as the scripted “Waco” — which is being used to relaunch the Paramount Network, formerly known as Spike TV — picks up largely in the middle, with Koresh firmly ensconced as the leader of the Branch Davidian cult, having designated himself as the only male capable of siring righteous children with his female followers.
The process, of course, produces complications internally, as even one of Koresh’s most loyal lieutenants (Paul Sparks) must deal with his wife (Andrea Riseborough) carrying Koresh’s baby, after the couple had been unable to conceive.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, meanwhile, is still smarting from what happened at Ruby Ridge in 1992. The hierarchy is thus looking for a “win” — in the form of a successful operation — to secure its funding and, as one of the bureau’s leaders puts it, “remind Congress why they need us.”
The casting certainly gives “Waco” a premium feel, including Michael Shannon — an actor who has a way of classing up the joint — playing an FBI negotiator, Gary Noesner, who will eventually wind up trying to talk Koresh out of the compound and avoid the tragedy that ensued.
Produced by brothers John Erick Dowdle and Drew Dowdle, “Waco” is based on two books about the standoff — one by Noesner, the other by cult survivor David Thibodeau, played by Rory Culkin. At least initially, the dramatic approach feels spends less time than expected on Koresh’s excesses — or “madness,” as the documentary puts it — in its eagerness to explore the government’s missteps during the standoff. (Disgraced producer Harvey Weinstein, it’s worth noting, helped sell the scripted project but has had his credit expunged.)
“Madman or Messiah’s” main selling point relies on access to nearly 250 FBI tapes of conversations with Koresh recorded during the Waco siege, offering insight into a mind-set that involved setting himself up as a Christ-like figure. The producers also interview a number of former cult members and survivors of the standoff, as well as third parties who identify Koresh as a “con man,” taking control over the Branch Davidians after striking up a relationship with their leader.
Even viewed separately, it’s hard to escape the calculation that has gone into these programs. The re-branded Paramount is trying to quickly establish itself as a destination for quality scripted fare — a reworking of the movie “Heathers” is up next — while A&E continues its headlong dive into the crowded true-crime swamp in which multiple networks have planted flags since “Making a Murderer” and “The Jinx” made such a splash.
From that perspective, whatever the verdict on Koresh’s messianic claims, the renewed fascination with Waco exemplified by these twin projects is evidence that there’s plenty of method in their madness.
“Waco” premieres Jan. 24 at 10 p.m. on Paramount Network. “Waco: Madman or Messiah” premieres Jan. 28 at 9 p.m. on A&E.