The Buzz: Taylor Kitsch’s Bland Acting Turns ‘Waco’ Into a Bore

Taylor Kitsch has gone through a bit of a rough patch over the past decade. Since his breakthrough role in NBC’s Friday Night Lights, the actor has attempted to make the jump from small screen heartthrob to viable leading man, resulting in some of the most notorious bombs in recent memory (John Carter, Battleship, Savages). Even Kitsch’s return to television have proven divisive, as evidenced by his critically panned role in the second season of True Detective. Does Kitsch have what it takes to carry a project on his own? Waco, the first official miniseries to be released from Paramount Network, attempts to provide conclusive evidence.

Unfortunately, based on the pilot episode “Visions and Omens”, which premiered on January 24th, it doesn’t look as though the evidence provided is encouraging. Engrossing and meandering in equal measure, Waco is a show that feels mortally hampered by its leading man, who can’t seem to muster any of the gravitas needed to play real life cult leader David Koresh. Despite sharing a similar surname, Kitsch sees his shortcomings as an actor dubiously highlighted opposite charismatic supporting players like Michael Shannon, Melissa Benoist, John Leguizamo and Shea Whigham. 

Frustratingly, the real events upon which the series is based, the 51-day standoff between the FBI, the ATF, and Koresh’s spiritual sect in Waco, Texas in 1993, provides a fertile bed of soil from which to plant a narrative. One gets the sense there is a great story wanting to be told here. Koresh’s relationship with his followers have a quiet, threatening ambiguity, as do the interactions between the various law enforcements, who bicker and argue over how to take Koresh down. Some merely want to convict, others want to overstate Koresh’s capabilities as a means to make an example of him. This slippery moral compass is inspired stuff, and could easily lead into more interesting dramatic territory as the series develops.

Shannon and Whigman are FBI agents Gary Noesner and Mitch Decker, an archetypal combo that sees the former play the methodical lawman, and the latter his hothead partner. Both actors are proven veterans, particularly Shannon, who, at this point, could read a cookbook and make it sound like compelling drama, but they aren’t given much to do beyond their assigned tropes, thus undercutting the show’s moral grayness. There isn’t much nuance to Noesner and Decker, forcing the actors to affect any quirks or flourishes they can to keep from boring the viewer. I’ll rate them successful at it, but only just so. Their interactions were a little too reminiscent (presumably, without intention) of a lesser True Detective narrative.

Then there is Kitsch. Hidden beneath a gnarly wig and some period glasses, he lumbers from one exchange to the other, mistaking despondent line reading for gnarled intensity. The real Koresh was a leader of men, a showman who is said to have erected the Branch Davidians cult almost single-handedly. Instead of tapping into the kind of persona needed to do so, Kitsch’s take on Koresh sees him lean into the same brooding qualities that made him so swoon worthy on Friday Night Lights. Only there, as a troubled high school quarterback, the affection seemed logical. He was a young punk. Here, it couldn’t be more out of place. His Koresh is a wet blanket of charisma, a leader who the show must constantly remind us is important, lest we forget during his many tiresome scenes. 

To add insult to creative injury, showrunners John Erick Dowdle and Drew Dowdle have decided to shy away from some of the more controversial (see: interesting) aspects of Koresh’s life. The cult leader’s history of sleeping with underage women-- and countless allegations of sexual abuse to boot-- is treated fairly rote, as if such a thing would do little to illuminate his character. Exploring such touchy subjects may be intimidating for some, but when it comes to depicting men like Koresh on film or television, avoiding them feels like a disservice both to the viewer and those who were involved in the Branch Davidians.

It’s abhorrently clear that dozens of people were willing to give up their lives for David Koresh, but so far, Waco has done little to sell us on the “why.” The cinematography, the writing, and the supporting cast are all very accomplished, and yet, it feels as though none of them are truly invested in the material here. Combine that with the latest (and hopefully, last) exhibition of Taylor Kitsch’s shortcomings as an actor, and you’ve got a show who’s strongest virtue is that it's only six episodes.

Episodes of Waco air on Spike on Wednesdays at 8 P.M. EST