'Special Ops: Lioness' Review: Taylor Sheridan Makes Military Propaganda

‘Special Ops: Lioness’ Review: Taylor Sheridan Makes Military Propaganda

The women in Taylor Sheridan projects tend to be lone wolves. They also tend to fit into specific, narrow archetypes: the vulnerable naif (Kate Macer in “Sicario”; Jane Banner in “Wind River”); the ferocious badass (Beth Dutton in “Yellowstone”; Hannah Faber in “Those Who Wish Me Dead”); the steely matriarch (Beth’s ancestors Margaret and Cara, who anchor the “Yellowstone” prequel series “1883” and “1923”). The screenwriter is himself a lone wolf, posing for magazine covers in a cowboy hat while denigrating the use of writers’ rooms, and rose to the top of Hollywood’s hierarchy in part through a shameless embrace of genre tropes.

Sheridan’s latest series for the streaming service Paramount+ takes its title from another kind of predator — one who travels in packs. “Special Ops: Lioness” isn’t just the first Sheridan show to feature a true multiplicity of female leads; it’s also the first to have an explicitly gendered premise. But just because “Lioness” features more women protagonists doesn’t mean Sheridan has grown any more nuanced in his depiction of them.

Loosely — very loosely — based on a real CIA program, “Lioness” follows an initiative that embeds undercover agents with high-value terrorism targets, forming relationships with suspected leaders’ wives, girlfriends and female family members to gather intelligence. (Sheridan’s inspiration was in fact designed to allow religiously sensitive, same-sex body searches of female suspects, here a jumping-off point into the creative deep end.) In the opening scene, Lioness leader Joe (Zoe Saldaña) loses an operative when her cover is blown, forcing Joe to call in a drone strike that kills the spy along with her adversaries. As a replacement, Joe recruits Cruz Manuelos (Laysla De Oliveira), a Marine whose ability to do pull ups is presented as qualification for the job.

Sheridan has long cultivated an image in contrast with liberal cultural elites without quite aligning with their opposite. “Yellowstone” was famously rejected by HBO before earning a reputation as the “red state ‘Succession,’” though its politics have always been more ambiguous — or maybe just more muddled — than straight conservatism. As the above synopsis implies, “Lioness” has no such ambiguity. The show is an unabashed work of military propaganda that positions the United States Armed Forces as the “strong” who “protect the weak,” a group that apparently includes the entire Middle East as well as vulnerable members of U.S. society.

In the single chapter of the eight-episode season provided to critics — despite a two-episode premiere — there’s no hint of curiosity about the circumstances that pit the Lioness team against the Islamic State in Iraq despite the lip service paid to establishing a democracy after the fall of Saddam Hussein. There is, however, a stunningly ham-fisted scene in which a younger Cruz runs from her violent abuser and into a recruitment office, where an imposing officer scares off her persecutor before coining the kind of faux-profound bon mot that’s a signature of Sheridan dialogue: “In war, if you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’.” Cruz quotes her onetime savior when Joe explains the premise of the Lioness program, underscoring the implication that it’s a global superpower’s job to look out for the underdog by any means necessary. If you don’t agree with that vision of U.S. hegemony, this is not the show for you.

“Lioness” also stars and is executive produced by Nicole Kidman, whose presence on TV has gone from a momentous event to disconcertingly normal in just a few years. But Kidman appears in only a single scene of the series premiere as Joe’s supervisor, admonishing her for losing her direct report. (Intensifying the show’s right-wing overtones, the first Lioness mole is found out when one of her companions spots a Christian tattoo.) Rather than conduct a more careful search for her next mentee, Joe selects Cruz, a ferocious combatant who has no background we know of in either espionage or Iraqi language and culture. She can, however, shotgun a beer.

By the end of the first episode, penned by Sheridan and directed by John Hillcoat, Cruz has miraculously ingratiated herself with a potential asset. We’ve also gotten a glimpse of Joe’s home life, which includes two daughters and a husband who serves as their primary parent while his wife is off at war. Sheridan doesn’t just give the leads of “Lioness” masculine names like “Joe” and “Cruz”; he also gives them stereotypically masculine conflicts like feeling estranged from their children due to a stressful job. Even Cruz’s abuse segues into a storyline in which her physical strength is equated with her worth. 

It is perhaps predictable that the Sheridan take on pop feminism would weaponize women’s liberation in service of the military industrial complex. After all, that rhetorical sleight of hand is as much a cliché as the rest of “Lioness,” which shows the strain of a single writer cranking out scripts for each of his half-dozen shows on air. “Lioness” may be a first for its creator in some respects, but in others, it’s more of the same.

The first two episodes of “Special Ops: Lioness” will premiere on Paramount+ on July 23, with future episodes airing weekly on Sundays.