‘Special Ops: Lioness’ Reconsidered

Contains spoilers for the recently concluded first season of “Special Ops: Lioness.”

In July I wrote a review of the new series “Special Ops: Lioness” that was true to what I had seen but that didn’t do justice to what the show ended up being.

The problem was that I had seen only one of the show’s eight episodes. That was the allotment for critics; who made that decision (Paramount+ or the show’s creator and writer, Taylor Sheridan) and why (spoilers, control issues, disorganization), I don’t know. Receiving a single episode was common before the streaming era, when network series had short lead times and making and mailing videocassettes and DVDs was expensive. These days, outside of particularly spoiler-averse franchises like Marvel and “Star Wars,” it is more common to receive between a half and a whole season online in advance.

That would have made all the difference with “Special Ops: Lioness,” which felt like a different show beginning with its second episode (released to the public the same day as the first). What seemed to be a formulaic counterterrorism thriller with a melodramatic premise — a female Marine is recruited to befriend the daughter of a Middle Eastern arms dealer so that the C.I.A. can take him out — turned out to be a moody, suspenseful, textured genre piece with characters you cared about.

There were still issues. The melodramatic contrivances proliferated: The Marine, Cruz (Laysla De Oliveira), fell in love and went to bed with Aaliyah (Stephanie Nur), the heiress she was betraying. Joe (Zoe Saldaña), the alpha-agent running the operation, was an anguished absentee mother whose daughter was mangled in a midseason car accident.

Also present was the cynical frontier moralism, balanced by sentimentality, that runs through most of Sheridan’s shows (including “Yellowstone” and its Old West spinoffs). The targets of judgment ranged from the world’s leaders, a feckless and incompetent bunch, to the Hamptons, where Cruz was drugged by a random sleazebag in a scene that, for this show, served as comic relief. When Joe told her bosses that she would be willing to sacrifice Cruz by calling in a missile strike, her cleareyed brutality was meant to both shock and thrill; of course, we knew that she would do whatever it took to save the soldier who had become her surrogate daughter.

But Sheridan’s tics were easier to take in “Special Ops,” which felt more relaxed but also more tightly constructed than his previous shows (with the exception of the droll gangster drama “Tulsa King,” which is overseen by Terence Winter). Maybe it’s just practice — across his six dramas, Sheridan has written or co-written close to 80 episodes of television over the last five years.

Some of the credit certainly goes to the directors, Anthony Byrne, Paul Cameron and John Hillcoat, who had not worked on earlier Sheridan shows, and an excellent cast including Saldaña, Nur, De Oliveira, Nicole Kidman as Joe’s C.I.A. supervisor and Morgan Freeman, in a few scenes, as the querulous secretary of state.

If I had to guess, though, I would say that the real difference was that Sheridan found a form, the action thriller, that suits him better than the western soap operas and contemporary crime dramas that he has produced up to now. The faster pace and broader canvas helped to dissipate the pretentious, mythic quality of the dysfunctional-family melodrama that sits at the center of all of his shows.

And Sheridan’s celebration of stoic American strength, with its of-the-moment undertones of exasperation and paranoia, was a comfortable fit in the context of clandestine counterterrorism operations on foreign soil, as long as you went along for the ride and didn’t think too hard about what the show has to say about American imperialism and predatory capitalism. The problem with Sheridan’s other shows is that they give you too much time to think; in “Special Ops,” you could just focus on the mission.

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