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Taylor Sheridan Stretches Himself Beyond Mission Parameters with Special Ops: Lioness

The Taylor Sheridan industrial complex continues unabated over at Paramount+. Not content to tackle just two of American masculinity’s favorite genres (Westerns, “Yellowstone”; mobsters, “Mayor of Kingstown” and “Tulsa King”), streaming’s La-Z-Boy Whisperer is finally tackling the War on Terror. But despite its prestige-level budget and cast of way-overqualified A-list stars, “Special Ops: Lioness” lands with a jingoistic thud, feeling more like a 45-minute USMC recruitment ad than an honest-to-God military thriller.

“Special Ops: Lioness” (which sounds like a spinoff to a network thriller that doesn’t exist) follows the Lioness Team, a subset of the CIA that sends female operatives undercover in Iraq and other ISIS-occupied countries to get close to the wives, girlfriends, and daughters of high-level targets. Leading the team is Joe (Zoe Saldana), a hard-as-nails, uncompromising soldier whose job it is to handle the undercover agents tasked with infiltrating these terrorist social circles. It’s not easy; in the opening minutes, her latest asset is discovered and presumed lost after they see a tattoo of a cross on her side. Her superiors (Michael Kelly and Nicole Kidman, barely used here outside of boardrooms) lambast her and demand she find a replacement.

Here we’re introduced to Cruz Manuelos (Laysla De Oliviera), a former stripper with an abusive boyfriend and a go-nowhere job flipping burgers. After an altercation with said boyfriend sees her running into a Marine recruitment office for help, she ends up enlisting. In the world of the show, working-class women have only two options: walk the streets or join the armed forces. 

Lucky her, then, that she’s a next-level genius at this—she’s in peak physical condition, learns languages at the drop of a hat, and is ruthlessly ambitious in ways she never applied to her pre-Marine career. It’s not long before she’s dropped into Joe’s team, with the task of befriending the daughter of a high-level CIA target. 

The premiere episode plays as a kind of prologue to the drama to come, largely tracking Cruz’s initiation into the Lioness team alongside a few bursts of action in the beginning. Scenes mostly consist of walk-and-talks of people in combat fatigues rattling off performance metrics and bog-standard intel. Everyone is a stone-faced professional or stubborn bureaucrat, or, in the case of Cruz’s backstory, a misogynist or a stripper. Sheridan positions the military as a beacon of discipline and order against a chaotic world both foreign (the mysterious Muslim terrorists of ISIS) and domestic (the unwashed civilian hordes). 

From its opening minutes, with Andrew Lockington’s drum-heavy score and the desaturated, brown cinematography, “Lioness” reeks of the kind of War on Terror stories that haunted us in the late aughts. The wailing Arabic vocals, Brown people in turbans viewed with suspicion, ISIS combatants firing AKs off the backs of pickup trucks: It’s all here as if Peter Berg stepped out of a time machine from 15 years ago and picked the camera back up as if nothing happened. An A-10 Warthog comes in to lay waste to a line of ISIS soldiers, and its victory lap feels so celebratory you’d half expect the “Team America” theme to play over it. Oo-rah.

Sheridan presents his grizzled soldiers as archetypes rather than three-dimensional beings. For all of Joe’s butch toughness, Sheridan still positions her central conflicts bout balancing that work with being a wife and mother back home. Characters speak in stock military NPC dialogue: “I don’t trust someone who doesn’t get drunk with me,” one of the Bearded Dude Team Members grunts to Cruz in their first meeting. 

“We are the strong. We protect the weak,” says one Marine higher-up to Cruz early in her career. That’s the kind of semper-fi sloganeering that Sheridan’s show takes at face value, fetishizing the aesthetics of the American military along the way. (The opening titles linger over stern-faced soldiers in tactical vests, rugged beards, and AR-15s bedecked with red dot sight attachments.) 

It’s fitting that “Lioness” seeks to lionize the American military so uncritically; the show feels less motivated to drive Paramount+ subscriptions than it does USMC recruitment quotas. Here’s hoping the show gets more complicated after its opening hour (and finally shows us Morgan Freeman, one of the biggest names attached to the show but who remains absent from the premiere). Otherwise, it’s hard to see what this does for people outside the dopamine hits craved by folks who play a little too much “Modern Warfare.” 

The first episode of “Special Ops: Lioness” was screened for review. The show premieres July 23 on Paramount+.

Clint Worthington

Clint Worthington is a Chicago-based film/TV critic and podcaster. He is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Spool, as well as a Senior Staff Writer for Consequence. He is also a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and Critics Choice Association. You can also find his byline at RogerEbert.com, Vulture, The Companion, FOX Digital, and elsewhere. 

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