Now that Taylor Sheridan has won the TV Western revival with “Yellowstone” and its universe of prequels, he’s pivoting to the Middle East. “Special Ops: Lioness” is a female-driven contemporary espionage thriller where the white hats are CIA special forces, and the black hats are Middle Eastern terrorists. Helicopters and heavy artillery have replaced horses and shotguns.
Setting aside Sheridan’s recent inexplicable Emmy nomination snubs, the multi-hyphenate can tell an engrossing story that entwines flat-out action and interpersonal drama. Here, as showrunner and sole writer, he’s created an eight-part series that recalls movies like Kathryn Bigelow’s breathless yet intimate “Zero Dark Thirty” and “The Hurt Locker.” We’ve got the fog of war, and the way that warps reality when the warrior returns stateside.
At its center is the athletic beauty Zoe Saldaña. She plays Joe, a kickass CIA special ops team leader accustomed to, if not entirely comfortable with, making life or death decisions on the fly. With blood on her hands, she’s running a dangerous game. Her tight top-secret crew seeks high value targets by identifying their wives, girlfriends and children. Once these ties are established, she inserts specially trained female undercover agents, like badass Marine Barbie Cruz Manuelos (standout Laysla de Oliveira), to befriend the beloveds. Once situated, the operative provides eyes on the inside generating intel to flush out and capture the terrorists.
A lot can go very wrong, very fast. And frequently, it does.
Saldaña (“Avatar’s” blue-skinned matriarch Neytiri and green-skinned Gamora of the “Guardians of the Galaxy” franchise) owns the role: tough, commanding and as much in control as one can be given the general chaos, instability and constant danger. Work-life balance? This mother of two privileged kids and wife of silver fox Neil (“Yellowstone” actor Dave Annable) appears more at ease wearing body armor in a sandstorm than breaking bread at her suburban dinner table. With terrorists, she’s a warrior that knows who she’s fighting. For Joe, her own mercurial kids present more of a mystery. We feel her pain.
Sheridan has recruited a ringer to direct four episodes, including the pilot and finale: John Hillcoat. The Australian movie director helmed Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee in “The Road” and Guy Pearce in “The Proposition.” He knows how to visualize and tell a story that is simultaneously intimate and epic, propelled by dangerous circumstances that can be post-apocalyptic in its proportions.
A switch hitter with a knack for eliciting strong performances, Hillcoat also thrives in quality television. He helmed all six episodes of the Emmy-nominated limited series “George & Tammy” that brought accolades to leads Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain.
In addition to eliciting strong performances, that level of talent behind the camera generates high-quality, arresting visuals. The action sequences grip tight. The pacing is fast when it needs to be and fluid where it counts – whether in the opening all-out assault on an ISIS hornet’s nest in the desert, a posh Kuwaiti luxury mall, or in the soft flattering light of Joe’s bedroom.
Along with Saldaña, the series has some big-name acting talent attached. Michael Kelly and Nicole Kidman are CIA bureaucrats up the food chain. They share one scene in the first episode, rebuking Joe after a failed operation for which the agent was responsible. Presumably, their characters will have more to do in subsequent shows. As of the premiere, Morgan Freeman is still just a face on the poster.
All of this analysis derives from screening the pilot, which premieres Sunday. As the end credits rolled on Sheridan’s well-crafted thriller, I immediately wanted to discover what happens next. I’d already become invested in how Saldaña will steer her patriotic supermom through the dangerous shoals and whirlpools of international espionage – and motherhood back home.
“Special Ops: Lioness” premieres Sunday, July 23, on Paramount+.