Special Ops: Lioness TV Review

Taylor Sheridan’s latest series is a top-notch military thriller with great performances from Zoe Saldana and Laysla De Oliveira.

Last Updated on July 24, 2023

Plot: Inspired by an actual U.S. Military program, SPECIAL OPS: LIONESS follows the life of Joe (Saldaña) while she attempts to balance her personal and professional life as the tip of the CIA’s spear in the war on terror. The Lioness Program, overseen by Kaitlyn Meade (Kidman) and Donald Westfield (Kelly), enlists an aggressive Marine Raider named Cruz (De Oliveira) to operate undercover alongside Joe among the power brokers of State terrorism in the CIA’s efforts to thwart the next 9/11.

Review: With Yellowstone wrapping at the end of the current season, Taylor Sheridan’s oeuvre of series on Paramount Network and Paramount+ continues to grow. Unlike Mayor of Kingstown, Tulsa King, and the various Yellowstone spin-offs, Sheridan’s latest series leaves the wild world of small-town politics and crime for a larger scale. Focused instead on covert operations conducted by the CIA, Taylor Sheridan’s Special Ops: Lioness is an espionage drama chock full of thrills, action, and badass leading ladies. A refreshing change of pace from his other shows, Special Ops: Lioness may be the best show from the prolific Sheridan since the Kevin Costner-led Montana Western.

Special Ops: Lioness

I will start with a disclaimer that only the first episode of Special Ops: Lioness was made available for this review. But it is one hell of a premiere episode. Titled “Sacrificial Soldiers,” the debut of Lioness opens with a brutal military sequence that introduces us to Joe (Zoe Saldana), a veteran soldier who deploys female assets into the field. These assets, known under the codename Lioness, are used to get close to the wives, girlfriends, and daughters of suspected terrorists. The opening of this episode shows the cover of Joe’s asset being blown and the repercussions of Joe’s decisions on handling the situation. Reporting to Kaitlyn Meade (Nicole Kidman) and Byron Westfield (Michael Kelly), Joe must select a new operative for her latest mission. That is where Cruz Manuelos (Laysla De Oliveira) comes into the mix.

After the intense opening sequence, Special Ops: Lioness shifts to show us Cruz. While working in a restaurant’s kitchen and living with an abusive boyfriend, Cruz finds her way to the Marines after an altercation leaves her with nowhere to go. De Oliveira, best known for playing Dodge on Netflix’s Locke & Key as well as a lead role in the Stephen King film In the Tall Grass, cuts an impressive figure as Cruz with a presence that is both formidable and inexperienced, making her a great entry to this story. Cruz’s backstory is not explained much beyond this, but her decision to join up comes from having no alternatives. Taylor Sheridan has always done a great job of showing the myths of America in a way that fills you with patriotism; this series is no exception. Cruz is the perfect Marine, displaying an aptitude both physically and mentally for the work of being the fiercest military warrior in the United States armed forces. This makes her the perfect match for Joe’s program, and the two find themselves quickly in the field. The episode concludes with the start of Cruz’s undercover mission, making the preceding forty minutes a brisk lead-in to the series.

While focusing predominantly on Cruz, we briefly glimpse Joe’s tense home life with her two children and husband Neil (David Annable). Zoe Saldana, who has played various characters over her career, brings a distinct edge to Joe. More stoic and harder than many prior roles, Joe is a great character for Saldana, who has to balance a lot in this role that she can draw from her real life. Her constant deployment in the field has created a tough relationship with her kids, and Joe avoids a lot by putting all of her focus on her missions and her field team. On that team are Bobby (Jill Wagner), Two Cups (LaMonica Garrett), Tex (Jonah Wharton), and Tucker (James Jordan), all of whom have unique personalities that will factor into subsequent episodes. What the first episode does not feature is an appearance by Morgan Freeman. While prominent in the trailers, Freeman and cp-star Martin Donovan will likely appear later in the first season along with more of Nicole Kidman, who only has a single scene in the debut hour.

While Taylor Sheridan created the series, he took over as showrunner after the conclusion of the writer’s room developed the concept. Sheridan, who has directed most of the series he has created for Paramount, handed over duties on this premiere episode to Jon Hillcoat. The acclaimed director of The Proposition, The Road, Lawless, and Triple 9 rarely helms television, having only directed an episode of Black Mirror and the limited series George & Tammy. Hillcoat has an eye for action and frames the opening firefight with an impressive scale for a small-screen series. In fact, most of Special Ops: Lioness looks like a feature film, echoing the work of directors like Kathryn Bigelow and Tony Scott. With subsequent episodes directed by Anthony Byrne, Paul Cameron, and others, it remains to be seen if they can pick up with this opening leaves off. Still, this eight-episode series has a lot of promise thanks to the score from Andrew Lockington and solid editing and cinematography from a team that includes Nicole Hirsch Whitaker, John Conroy, Chad Galster, John Coniglio and more.

Special Ops: Lioness

While I have been a fan of Taylor Sheridan for a long time, Special Ops: Lioness may be the best start to a series he has delivered since Yellowstone. With a fascinating concept and two very capable actors in lead roles, Special Ops: Lioness premieres with an episode that literally blows things up at the start and never lets go for a full hour. There have been a lot of military-centric series over the years, but few have been as rousing to me as this one. Zoe Saldana and Laysla De Oliveira live up to the title of this series as fierce warriors. Few series have hooked me after one episode the way Special Ops: Lioness has and I cannot wait to see more.

Special Ops: Lioness premieres on July 23rd on Paramount+.

Source: JoBlo.com

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Alex Maidy has been a JoBlo.com editor, columnist, and critic since 2012. A Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic and a member of Chicago Indie Critics, Alex has been JoBlo.com's primary TV critic and ran columns including Top Ten and The UnPopular Opinion. When not riling up fans with his hot takes, Alex is an avid reader and aspiring novelist.