TV has been home to plenty of “you can never go home again” stories, and yet it’s never made space for a show quite like Vida.
Starz’s smart, sexy, funny new drama centers on Emma (Michel Prada) and Lyn (Melissa Barrera), two Mexican-American sisters who considered leaving their hometown in East Los Angeles a badge of honor. Their mother’s sudden death forces them to reconsider that stance, themselves, and their place in a world that would prefer to flatten out their neighborhood’s singular character in favor of a slick new apartment complex or artisanal coffee shop.
What’s more, they quickly learn with a combination of shock and frustration, their mother’s “roommate” Eddy (Ser Anzoategui) wasn’t her roommate at all, but her wife.
When we meet Emma and Lyn, they stick out so much in their Boyle Heights neighborhood that they might as well be glowing neon. Emma’s blunt bob haircut, sensible blouses, and wary eyes show just how distant she feels from her hometown and the colorful, crumbling bar her mother owned and left behind. Her little sister Lyn prides herself on being the kind of glamorous that both announces itself immediately and feigns modesty, maybe best exemplified by her tendency to go jogging in a full face of makeup.
So at first, it seems like neither has much attachment to the bar, the neighborhood, or even their mother (whose name was Vidalia, “Vida” for short). But Vida quickly reveals the layers comprising both women, peeling them back with care as they open themselves up to the possibility that there might be more for them here than they first thought.
Vida only has six half-hour episodes in its first season, but it uses every one of them to tell vital stories that TV has traditionally ignored. Still, as written by creator Tanya Saracho and her room of all Latinx writers(!), Vida doesn’t just drop truth bombs about hot-button issues. Instead, it presents them as the deeply complicated, personal, and revealing intersections of humanity they truly are.
Vida weaves the pain of gentrification and homophobia into an ultimately joyful family story
The show’s most immediately urgent thread is rooted in gentrification’s mission creep across Los Angeles. While Vida’s bar has been open for decades, it now lies in a prime spot for bougie development, and the vultures don’t wait for her wake to be over to start circling.
Emma’s ready to sell but Eddy refuses, trying desperately to make her wife’s daughters realize how much the bar means to the community. Lyn, who doesn’t speak Spanish and is restless for validation, shrugs at it all and gets tangled back up with her ex Johnny (Carlos Miranda). But all the while, Johnny’s younger sister Mari (Chelsea Rendon) is waging war on the “colonizers” taking over the neighborhood with furious vlogs and conspiratorial neighborhood meetings trying to guess which beloved local mainstay is going to fall next.
The best parts of Vida’s approach to showing the costs of gentrification come when it’s most personal. For as good as Rendon is, Mari often feels too separated from everyone else for her storylines to make as much of an impact as they could. It’s when Vida concentrates on the bar, what it represents, and the conflict that Emma, Lyn, and Eddy feel over how best to honor Vida and her legacy — which includes considerable bills — that it drives home what gentrification can mean on both personal and professional levels.
And with every passing episode, the revelation of Vida’s sexuality also becomes a major factor in the fate of the bar. For one, it becomes clear that while some (queer) people came to the bar toward the end of Vida’s life because of her and Eddy, many others avoided it for the same reason. It also quickly comes to light that Emma reacted so badly to finding out the truth of what Eddy meant to her mother because she’s also queer — and before Vida figured out she was too, she couldn’t handle it.
Every actor on Vida is great; Barrera’s performance in particular blooms with searing clarity as Lyn is forced to face her own reckless choices. But it’s Prada’s Emma who becomes both the backbone and the beating heart of Vida as she grapples with her mother’s truth and the painful reality of learning it too late. And even though she insists to Lyn when she comes out that she’s “just me,” it takes far more time for Emma to stop internalizing the apparent homophobia that drove such a wedge between her and her mother and accept that, yes, this is who she really is.
By the end of the first season, Emma hasn’t completely transformed from the tense taskmaster who first wheeled her suitcase back into the bar with such apprehension. But she has embraced the challenge of reconsidering what home means for her — or, more exciting still, the possibility of what it could be.
Vida premieres Sunday, May 6, at 8:30 pm on Starz.