‘Special Ops: Lioness’ Review: Taylor Sheridan Proves Again How To Do a Character Study in Efficient Yet Poignant Ways in 2023

Special Ops: Lioness, the latest Taylor Sheridan wonder kicks off with a great first episode starring Zoe Saldaña and Laysla De Oliveira on Paramount Plus

The first episode of Paramount Plus’ Special Ops: Lioness is 40 minutes long. In a world where we’ve come to expect our TV dramas to clock in around the hour mark, and where we even dare to complain when we’re underserved, that seems slightly underwhelming. And yet, by the time the credits roll, we’ve been introduced to two major characters and have spent enough time with them to know their strengths and weaknesses, to be able to relate to them. We also know what the plot of the series is and have seen enough conflict to be excited about what’s ahead. And most importantly, we’re eager to see the next episode.

Lioness revolves around an operation led by Zoe Saldaña’s Joe, who sends female agents undercover to infiltrate the lives of key members of ISIS through connecting with their wives and daughters, and thus try to get intel on the male side of the family. After messing things up, Joe is compelled to try again with a new recruit, Cruz (Laysla De Oliveira), who is the co-protagonist of the story and who takes up as much screen time in the first episode as Joe does.

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Special Ops: Lioness and How to Build Characters

Zoe Saldana Special Ops: Lioness
Zoe Saldana as Joe and Dave Annabel as Neil in Special Ops: Lioness, episode 1, season 1, streaming on Paramount+, 2023. Photo Credit: William Gray/Paramount+

It’s no coincidence that the first time we meet each of these characters, they’ve hit rock bottom. Joe compromised the mission and her team, while Cruz finally realizes she’s had enough of living miserably and takes action against her abusive boyfriend. On her way to meeting Joe, she will go down some classic tropes of the military sub-genre and run into a few convenient coincidences, but it’s all for a greater purpose, and Sheridan’s writing is both smart enough to understand that and efficient enough to move on quickly from them before they drag the story.

To meet Cruz, we have to roll back the tape a few years, so we can see her progression through the military and understand her as a real person before she is ready to embark on the highly-classified mission. Here, the writing is once again efficient enough to give us enough information about the character in each scene while keeping the pace up because Sheridan knows that what’s ahead is all the more interesting; this is a character set up in the most basic of definitions.

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Joe is struggling to keep her attention divided between a family that needs her (it includes a son that will barely look her in the eye) and a mission that she believes she has the moral right to lead. There’s no new ground being explored here, but we can’t help but empathize with her because Sheridan makes us spend enough time in her shoes. Much of that also applies to Cruz, a woman who won’t be put down by the male surrounding her and, in a very Mulan-esque arc, she will rise to the top and prove that she doesn’t need to be a man to do however many pull-ups the officer in charge says they need to do.

Special Ops: Lioness and Building a Good TV Structure

Laysla De Oliveira as Cruz Manuelos in Special Ops: Lioness Season 1 streaming on Paramount+, 2023. Photo Credit: Lynsey Addario/Paramount+

As usual with first episodes, or at least those for well-structured shows, “Sacrificial Soldiers” is focused on establishing the narrative and raising enough interest in the viewer to tune in next week. And as far as I’m concerned, that will be me. Sheridan’s excellent writing is mostly noticeable by the fact that neither one of the main characters is someone we haven’t met in some other TV series or movie, yet we’re able to empathize with them — having a performer of the level of Zoe Saldaña, who by the end of this season could very well have delivered her best work yet, doesn’t hurt its chances either.

Sheridan proves once again he’s the ultimate American cowboy, as he’s come to be known after five seasons of Yellowstone and its spin-offs, with a series that once again touches on the classic tropes of so many patriotic stories.

Lioness is definitely a series about the military and its importance to the well-being of the United States, made by someone who wholeheartedly believes in that. Is that bad? Not necessarily, because as someone who isn’t from the United States and has no connection to the country other than some friends I’ve made online, all I care about is the story and whether or not by the time the credits roll, I would click on “Play Next” if I could. And in Lioness, I would.

Zoe Saldaña as Joe and James Jordan as Two Cups in Special Ops: Lioness, episode 1, season 1, streaming on Paramount+ 2023. Photo Credit: Lynsey Addario/Paramount+

The first episode of Lioness starts streaming on Paramount Plus on July 23. Are you excited about it? What are your thoughts on Taylor Sheridan’s series on the streamer? Had you heard of the series beforehand, and are you now planning to see it? Let us know your thoughts on our social media, and stay tuned for more reviews coming soon.

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