Taylor Sheridan’s TV empire conjures up the image of a man on the vast plains of the West, knocking back a (domestic) beer and grunting ’murica with a mixture of admiration and sadness, before turning his eyes back to a weathered copy of one of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s celebrated novels. Taylor Sheridan knows America better than you do: its might and its majesty, its joy and sorrow, who it celebrates, and most importantly, who it does not.
In the new Paramount Plus series Special Ops: Lioness, Sheridan turns his contemplative gaze to the women of the armed forces. Supposedly based on a real-life CIA task force, Lioness follows a team that places female operatives in the lives of women close to targets for assassination. It’s a nasty subject, the morality of which the show briefly acknowledges while breezily asserting its necessity and launching headfirst into the meat of the show: a character-driven spy thriller.
Lioness orbits around two women: Joe (Zoe Saldaña), who leads the Lioness team, and new recruit Cruz (Laysla De Oliveira), a driven woman with nowhere to go but the Marines when her abusive boyfriend finally goes too far. Its first episode — the only one in the two-part premiere made available to critics in advance — is mostly concerned with grounding its characters in the audience’s mind through moments of crisis.
Viewers meet Joe during an operation gone wrong, when a Lioness agent gets made by enemy soldiers and Joe decides to drone strike the entire scene, sparing the Lioness from torture and humiliation while also protecting the secrecy of her program and not risking any of her support team in what would’ve likely been an unsuccessful rescue. It immediately signals the kind of person Joe is; while most protagonists on shows like this are willing to cross lines to get the job done, Joe crosses lines to protect her team. Even if others can’t see that’s what she’s doing.
Meanwhile Cruz, fueled by a fury brought on by a life of abuse and denied opportunities, impresses her Marine recruiters with her tenacity and physical prowess and almost immediately gets recommended for the Lioness program. It’s not a natural fit: Joe’s team is clandestine and not built around the oorah brotherhood of the Marines, and Cruz bristles at the way Joe holds her at a distance. Her qualms stay limited to technique, though — for now.
Granted, the first episode of Lioness ends when the actual spying begins, and as Cruz gets embedded with her target, it’s possible that the series could prove more thoughtful than it is in its premiere. As the series progresses, the ugly work of spycraft might expose Cruz to women who were abused and taken advantage of the way she was — the way she is in the Lioness program — and become a better story for it. As easy it is to paint Sheridan’s work with a broad brush, his TV empire is more complex than the Cabela’s Fourth of July sale it seems like at a distance, occasionally turning to contemplate the storm clouds on the edge of the American Dream.
For now, Special Ops: Lioness is just 24-lite, a well-paced drama with plenty of action and a liberal sprinkling of movie stars (Nicole Kidman appears as Joe’s government handler, and Morgan Freeman shows up later). It’s not compelling enough to overcome the shortcomings of this kind of story — the jingoism, the Foreign Country Piss Filter, and so on — but strong performances and a tight eight-episode run could add up to something worthwhile. At the very least, it’s nice to watch a Sheridan show that’s not about a goddamn ranch.
Special Ops: Lioness premieres on Paramount Plus on July 23.