In the final moments of Barbie , a character lays out all the contradictory requirements for a woman: be strong but not too powerful, pretty but not too vain, ambitious but never aggressive, etc. That’s an incredible standard for anyone , even a lively doll, and the movie concludes that the only way to live with them is to let go of the pressure to try.
But the problem with cultural scripts is that they are very hard to shake. There will always be someone trying to thread a needle, no matter how obviously impossible it is. So we get things like Paramount+’s Special Ops: Lioness
, a series that tries so hard to meet some widely accepted ideals that it largely forgets to do anything interesting.
Special Ops: Lioness
BOTTOM LINE Great army commercial, lackluster drama.
Air Date: Sunday, July (Paramount+) Cast: Zoe Saldanha, Lesla de Oliveira, Michael Kelly, Nicole Kidman , Morgan Freeman, Dave Annable, Jill Wagner, LaMonica Garrett, James Jordan, Austin Herbert, Jonah Wharton, Stephanie Noor, Hannah Love Lanier Created by: 1235519261Taylor Sheridan
New Not-Yellowstone 1235519261Taylor Sheridanthriller centers on The Lionesses, an elite team of CIA agents led by Joe (Zoe Saldanha) who infiltrate the in a terrorist organization. The latest recruit is Cruz (Lesla de Oliveira), who fits every stereotype as a strong female character. First, literally: In Marine Corps basic training, her pull-ups and running speed put her in the percentile — “on the man scale,” which surprised her superiors, lest we think she’s only for girls. Plus, she’s the stoic silent type. Even when reflecting on her tragic backstory, she’s rarely emotional, and neither comedic nor frivolous.
At the same time, she’s traditionally attractive — as Special Ops: Lioness takes pains to emphasize a scene in which she’s naked for the most vulnerable reason of the plot. We see her as a damsel in trouble before we get to know her as a soldier. While fleeing an abusive boyfriend who was as bad as twirling his mustache, she ran straight into the Marine Corps recruiting center, where she was so impressed by the officer who scared him off that she nearly enlisted on the spot. Strong but also vulnerable, beautiful in a casual way, talented enough to grab attention but never rude enough to actually pursue career advancement: check, check and check, not to mention whether that would make Cruz feel less like a person than a bunch of focus-group-approved traits.
To be fair, some flatness isn’t necessarily unusual for a series that just started, and reviewers like me only received the first episode of Special Operations: Lioness . If its moral universe seems too black-and-white to be interesting—America is good, terrorists are bad, and war-torn Middle Eastern nations are perpetually yellow—we can hope that future storylines will add some welcome shades of gray. If its characters seem too simplistic right now, maybe we’ll get more depth when we get to know them better. If nothing else, we can definitely expect more from Nicole Kidman (who only briefly plays Joe’s CIA boss) or Morgan Freeman (who doesn’t appear in the pilot at all).
Even from here, Special Ops: Lioness isn’t all bad. De Oliveira imbues Cruz with enough gravitas to hint at hidden depths that the script has so far left unexplored. She is most alive when she is angry at the authority of Saldanha’s enigmatic, slightly sarcastic Joe. At the same time, Saldana draws stark contrasts between Jo’s icy professional demeanor and her tender, private demeanor, such as when visiting Jo’s husband (Dave Annable) and children, who have been almost strangers to her for so many months in isolation in distant, classified locations.
However, most of this time period is apathetic, curious and unimaginative. Its requisite action scenes (John Hillcott directed the pilot episode) are at best unmemorable and at worst downright confusing. They exist because you’d expect them to appear in a military spy thriller, not because anyone has any particular idea of how to make them look cool or exciting. Its dialogue is boilerplate. The intimate scenes between Cruz and her new teammates should be opportunities to showcase their personalities. Instead, we get boring clichés like “I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t get drunk with me,” or “I’m a fucking Marine, what do you expect?”
Its script seems to be constructed on the assumption that most viewers will only half-watch while scrolling Facebook on their phones anyway. That way, it might be less obvious that (for example) the timeline seems to be jumping forward at a erratic pace–certain events that seem like they should be weeks apart, turn out to happen within days, while entire months pass without even on-screen subtitles acknowledging the passage of time. In fact, as I did in this review, you might find yourself asking the question, “Why is Cruz, a character we understand to be so good at pull-ups and not very interested in people, chosen as a senior recruit for a mission that requires her befriending and manipulative abilities with shopaholic socialites?” We point the finger at it, and that is its reverence for the United States Marine Corps. To say this was an hour-long job ad would be an understatement of how serious it was. It wasn’t enough for a police officer to save Cruz from her abusive ex. Later, she recounts what happened to another officer so he could emphasize the show’s theme in more explicit terms: “We are the strong. We protect the weak. We are ruthless in this effort.”
The show shrugs off any qualms about its characters’ missions, citing “if you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying.” That sounds fine coming from a soldier, as long as you don’t think too much about how that line of thinking might play out in practice. But it seems like a predictable series that is more obsessed with impossible ideals than actual humanity or lived experience. On a weekend when even Barbie was forced to confront the gap between fantasy and reality, “Special Ops: Lioness” came out looking like it was full of plastic action figures.