Taylor Sheridan has built his very own television empire with Paramount over the last couple of years, starting with the wildly popular Western family saga Yellowstone and its multiple prequels and spinoffs, before giving Sylvester Stallone his first starring role on the small screen in mob series Tulsa King.
For his latest project, Sheridan is stepping away from the crime genre and exploring the world of international espionage. Special Ops: Lioness follows U.S. Marine Cruz Manuelos, played by Locke & Key’s Laysla De Oliveira, as she is recruited into the C.I.A.’s “Lioness” program, a secret operation where female operatives befriend the wives and daughters of dangerous terrorists in order to get close enough to neutralize these “high-value targets.”
Zoe Saldaña stars as Joe, Cruz’ handler, while Oscar-winning actors Nicole Kidman and Morgan Freeman appear in supporting roles. (Attracting prestige talent is one of Sheridan’s skills as a show runner: he sold Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren on Yellowstone prequel 1923, and is currently teasing that he is working on a project with “probably four of the biggest movie stars alive in it, and we’ve kept it quiet.”)
The first episode of Special Ops: Lioness is now streaming on Paramount+, and the trailer for the season promises plenty of explosive action—including, as Freeman’s character puts it, “a kill mission in front of CBS news.” But as far-fetched as the show might get in some of its high-octane sequences, the story is rooted in a grain of truth.
The new series airs exclusively on Paramount+. If you don’t subscribe to the streaming service, you can sign up for plans starting at $5.99 a month. Paramount+ also offers a Showtime bundle for $11.99 a month. If you’re new to the service, you can try it for free for seven days. Paramount+ is home to most of Taylor Sheridan’s shows, with Yellowstone being the major exception. Plus: The first episode is available to watch for free without a subscription, so you can check it out and see if you’re interested.
Even if you’ve never watched one of Taylor Sheridan’s shows, you’re likely intrigued by the all-star cast of this one. It includes Zoe Saldaña, Nicole Kidman, Morgan Freeman, Laysla De Oliveira, Michael Kelly, Dave Annable, Jill Wagner, LaMonica Garrett, James Jordan, Austin Hébert, Jonah Wharton, Stephanie Nur, and Hannah Love Lanier.
We go back four years and see how Cruz Manuelos (Laysla De Oliveira) came to be a Marine; working in a burger joint, she’s being chased by her abusive boyfriend when she fights back, and runs into a Marine recruitment office. She eventually enlists, and she scores through the roof, both in physical and intelligence tests.
Joe is skeptical when Cruz is offered as her new asset, but seems to appreciate her toughness. The Lioness program is designed to have assets infiltrate terrorist organizations via the wives and female family members of the organization’s members, and Cruz’s assignment is to befriend the sister of their desired target. After she meets the team — Bobby (Jill Wagner), Tucker (LaMonica Garrett), Two Cups (James Jordan), Tex (Jonah Wharton), and Randy (Austin Hébert) — and reluctantly drinks with them, a hungover Cruz is inserted into her undercover assignment without much prep, which is exactly the way Joe wants it.
Is Special Ops: Lioness based on a true story?
The all-female Lioness team in the show is inspired by a real-life unit created by the U.S. Marines, although their purpose was different. Task Force Lioness, or the Female Engagement Team, operated in Iraq and Afghanistan, and were tasked with identifying women who might be involved in terrorist activity.
Given that the Muslim beliefs of the Iraqi and Afghani people made it much more difficult for male Marines to interact with women in these regions, hijabi women were used more and more to carry out attacks, and so the Lionesses were formed in order to carry out closer surveillance on these women, establish relationships with women in the community, and conduct searches at checkpoints.
While Special Ops: Lioness appears to depict the Lionesses as a long-running program, in actual reality, it was a short-term measure: Lionesses eventually recruited and trained local women to conduct culturally sensitive security searches.
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.
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