In Watch This, Vox critic at large Emily VanDerWerff tells you what she’s watching on TV — and why you should watch it too. Read the archives here. This week: the half-hour drama Vida, which recently completed its second season on Starz. It is available on Starz’s streaming platforms.
It should come as no surprise that I love a good Los Angeles show. As an Angeleno myself, I am always taken with a series that can capture some slice of the hazy world that is my giant, sprawling metropolis.
What’s especially enticing about LA as a TV setting is that it is a massive city of neighborhoods. Silver Lake and its young, mostly white hipsters provides a very different backdrop for a TV show than the ultra-rich confines of Beverly Hills. Boyle Heights, a predominantly Mexican-American neighborhood that’s under perpetual threat of having its neighborhood character squashed by LA’s nearby, rapidly gentrifying downtown, is a completely different setting as well, despite being a short drive from Silver Lake.
If you’re not from LA, these neighborhood distinctions might mean nothing to you — but you won’t have to work hard to see the differences between shows like Silver Lake-set You’re the Worst or Beverly Hills 90210 and Starz’s Vida, a tale of two Mexican-American sisters who take over their mother’s bar in the neighborhood of Boyle Heights after she dies.
It’s a rich and involving show, and with 16 half-hour episodes having aired across its first two seasons, it’s a perfect weekend watch.
Vida is a great show about sisters, a relationship TV doesn’t always do right by
The center of Vida rests atop Lyn (Melissa Barrera) and Emma (Mishel Prada) Hernandez, sisters who move back to LA from San Francisco and Chicago, respectively, after their mother dies in the series’ first episode. Lyn is freewheeling and fun; Emma is more buttoned-up, more type A.
This is, to be sure, a dynamic you’ve seen on other TV shows. Siblings with radically divergent personalities isn’t exactly a new storytelling conceit. But Vida pushes beyond this surface to create a relationship that has real nuance and history to it. These two women have hurt each other badly, and there are scars.
And that’s to say nothing of the long-lost loves both sisters’ encounter when they move back to Boyle Heights, and their sometimes antagonistic relationship with Eddy (Ser Anzoategui), their mother’s widow who works in the bar the sisters now own and plan to offload. (This is television, so you can probably guess that they will be hanging on to that bar after all.)
The fact that the sisters’ mother was queer adds another wrinkle to the series, since Emma’s attraction toward other women strained her relationship to her mother, to the point where Emma never even was aware that her mother’s second marriage was to another woman. And throughout its supporting cast, Vida explores queer identities with a forthrightness that a lot of TV wouldn’t touch. Whether queer or straight, and no matter the body types involved, the sex scenes on Vida pulse with life and are invariably treated with love and care. They’re also all invariably hot.
Headed up by creator and showrunner Tanya Saracho, Vida pulls from a wide variety of influences and tones. The scenes at the bar have the warm feel of a favorite sitcom, while the more intimate, interpersonal scenes can shift ably from heart-rending drama to aching, unrequited romance. There’s even a touch of magical realism here and there, including a ghost who wanders the series’ margins.
In its second and stronger season, which wrapped in June, Vida slowly becomes as much about the neighborhood as the sisters and the bar, as characters beyond the central sisterhood become more and more important to the show’s stories. The series drills down effortlessly into the complicated identities of all of its characters, into the intersections of “lesbian” and “Latina” and “lower-class” that might drive one character and the completely different intersections that might drive another. And the show is smart about how it portrays all of these identities. Vida is the rare show on TV with a real understanding of how class identities intersect with race, sexuality, and gender.
But the series is also about how we come together as individuals to build communities strong enough to withstand the darkest horrors the world wants to throw our way. Lyn and Emma — constantly at each other’s throats but also fiercely, deeply protective of each other — serve as a perfect microcosm for the whole show. If you want to build a better world, you have to be ready to go to the mat for the people in your corner, even if you sometimes want to kill them.
Vida is available on Starz’s streaming platforms. Season three arrives in 2020.