TV Review – ‘Special Ops: Lioness’ is a Rote Terrorism Thriller from Taylor Sheridan

TV Review – ‘Special Ops: Lioness’ is a Rote Terrorism Thriller from Taylor Sheridan

Film and television over the past few decades have ingrained in audiences a picture of the war on terror, a series of seemingly endless conflicts with mostly unknown assailants whose primary goal is the destruction of America and democratic ideals. That’s created a relatively reductive view of nations as a whole and spawned many projects about units dedicated to intensive undercover operations with the aim of infiltrating top-secret operations and dismantling terrorist cells. Special Ops: Lioness is the latest such series, which delivers what viewers may expect but little in the way of freshness or creativity.

Joe (Zoe Saldaña) gets a call from an operative whose cover has been blown, and makes a difficult decision that she knows will result in the loss of an asset. Tasked with leading the CIA’s Lioness Program, Joe must report to Kaitlyn Meade (Nicole Kidman) and Donald Westfield (Michael Kelly) and ensure that her mistakes aren’t repeated. Joe is presented with a new agent who comes extremely highly recommended: Cruz (Laysla De Oliveira), who has been through considerably challenging circumstances in her own life that have set her up for a new and very dangerous line of work.

Special Ops Lioness
Zoe Saldana as Joe and James Jordan as Two Cups in Special Ops: Lioness, episode 1, season 1, streaming on Paramount+ 2023. Photo Credit: Lynsey Addario/Paramount+

There are moments in the pilot episode of Special Ops: Lioness that resemble other recent shows that have managed to transcend a basic format and stand out from the rest. Those include Homeland and Tehran, two series about deep-cover operations and the agents tasked with uncovering them. This series uses the entirety of its first installment to build to the introduction of the assignment, making the stakes clear given what happened to Cruz’s predecessor and showing how being physical fit for the job doesn’t necessarily mean that Cruz won’t be in way over her head as she has to pretend to be someone she’s not and face certain death if anything goes wrong.

While she holds the distinction of having starred in the three worldwide highest-grossing films of all time, Saldaña doesn’t do much television. This is her second starring role in that same number of years, and it’s a marked departure from her gentler protagonist in Netflix’s limited series From Scratch. As portrayed by Saldaña, Joe communicates that she’s learned how hard it is to be a woman in a male-dominated industry, and she puts up barriers when she interacts with her latest protégé, who has been through different experiences and come to where they both are with another perspective. De Oliveira, an alumna of Locke and Key, brings a believable grittiness and authenticity to this show’s co-lead character.

Special Ops Lioness
Laysla De Oliveira as Cruz Manuelos In Special Ops: Lioness, episode 1, season 1, streaming on Paramount+, 2023. Photo Credit: Lynsey Addario/Paramount+

Special Ops: Lioness is most notable because it comes from creator Taylor Sheridan, who has quickly become the go-to television force for Paramount Network and Paramount+. This a new space for him, however, removed from the Western landscape of Yellowstone, 1883, and 1923, and less urban and crime-oriented than Mayor of Kingstown and Tulsa King. While Sheridan is clearly a talented and sought-after writer and showrunner, this particular series doesn’t come with the same alluring traits as some of his other projects, feeling instead like yet another entry in a predictable catalog of programs that are overly familiar.

Joining Saldaña and De Oliveira in the cast are two big names given “with” credits, Morgan Freeman and Nicole Kidman. Both play key figures in government and operations who have a stake in Joe and Cruz’s success, though neither plays a major part in the events of the first episode. Their attachment should spark interest since both are performers who should have considerable power over the roles they choose, and there was evidently something about this show that spoke to them. Kelly feels more suitably cast, allowing him to portray a version of his House of Cards character but with no malicious forces breathing down his neck and guiding his every move. As the show continues, a focus on political machinations and interpersonal relationships for all the characters might prove a helpful respite from the otherwise lackluster action.

Grade: B-

Check out more of Abe Friedtanzer’s articles.

Special Ops: Lioness premieres with two episodes on Sunday, July 23rd on Paramount+.

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