Working in two languages and their associated slang, Starz's Vida is a show in which the characters have lots of ways to insult one another and take pleasure in doing so.
The slurs fly in English, Spanish and Spanglish. When creator Tanya Saracho really wants to twist the knife, though, she likes to work sociological. There are few things in the Vida world you could call a person that are worse than "gentrifier," but it may be just as harsh to call somebody a "tourist," as in one who drops into a place or a culture out of curiosity or even voyeurism without owning it, without accepting it, without endeavoring to be a part of it.
I've lived nearly 20 years in Los Angeles, but there are definitely moments watching Vida when I feel like a tourist. Many moments. The best moments. It's a show that starts from such a simple and familiar place — secrets are exposed when very different sisters are reunited by their mother's death — and takes it to such a specific place in a way that I wish more shows had the freedom or understanding to do. From the neighborhood to the vernacular to the music to the depiction of sexuality and cultural mores and identity, a half-hour with Vida is welcoming and enlightening and easy to embrace. And you can't begrudge it when it practically breaks through the fourth wall and says, "Yo. Why don't you visit more often? Why don't you live here?"
Even though the show's premise is simple, Vida spent much of its first six episodes, which aired last summer, establishing its characters and its foundation. We met type-A Emma (Mishel Prada) and flighty Lyn (Melissa Barrera) when they returned to the Boyle Heights section of L.A., were shocked to learn that their mother, an assumed strict Catholic, had a wife (Ser Anzoategui's Eddy), and tried to figure out what to do with their mother's run-down neighborhood institution of a bar. The too-brief run of episodes gave quick introductions to Lyn's ex-boyfriend Johnny (Carlos Miranda), Johnny's anti-gentrification firebrand of a sister (Chelsea Rendon's Marisol) and the slimy real estate developer (Luis Bordonada's Nelson) eager to buy up the bar.
The second season, which Starz is dropping in its entirety via OnDemand on May 23 and also begins two-episode-per-week Sunday airings on May 26, has been expanded to 10 episodes, allowing Saracho and her team of Latinx writers and Latina directors room to craft a much more consistent and impactful overall arc, without sacrificing the narrative intimacy established in those first six episodes.
The story is still fundamentally about these two sisters, who have now decided they want to take responsibility for the bar, along with responsibility for Eddy, who was badly beaten and hospitalized after a hate crime last season. Emma remains practical and determined to transform the bar and adjacent apartments into something profitable, though her personal life is a wreck, involving not just her not-quite-girlfriend Cruz (Maria Elena Laas) but a brooding ex-con handyman, Baco (Raul Castillo), and charismatic, motorcycle-riding bartender and author Nico (Roberta Colindrez). Lyn, whose frivolity branched into a duplicitous shopping spree last season, is coming to recognize the dangers of coasting on beauty. But a self-imposed sex fast is harder than she anticipates. And Eddy, in addition to her recovery, is fighting a losing battle to protect the purity of the bar, the building and her memories. Along the way, all three women are going to clash in ways that force them to examine their bonds and their definition of "family."
The half-hour drama format works well for Vida, but six episodes definitely wasn't enough, and 10 may not be enough either. Emma, Lyn and Eddy get full arcs as the season progresses, arcs that make your heart swell when they're simpatico and tear you apart a little when their bonds strain. I needed a few more episodes to better flesh out Marisol's character. Instead, her story involves too much repetition — I don't understand why Ramses Jimenez's Tlaloc is still a romantic possibility — and eventually feels rushed.
The characters on Vida often behave stupidly, but this is a smart, smart show, one that looks at culture on high and low levels, from debates about the flavor and significance of Valentina hot sauce to a point-by-point breakdown of Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird. Turning the bar partially into a Peach Pit-style musical venue opens the door for guest appearances by the likes of Maria del Pilar and San Cha, adding to a soundtrack that was already exceptional.
The show's identity politics become much more nuanced this season. When Emma and Lyn were outsiders, it was easy for the show to fall into an us/them binary. But as they integrate themselves back into the neighborhood, Emma and Lyn are forced to work more and more in shades of ethnic gray, and Vida is able to raise bigger questions: What is the cost of holding on to your roots? When you're balancing intersectional perspectives, do you prioritize one over the other? Where is the line between neighborhood improvement and gentrification?
I appreciate how Vida gets that its subject matter is intrinsically political and resists the temptation to overtly politicize it. This isn't a show dedicated to bashing Donald Trump or INS holding facilities or any of the explicit left-vs.-right ideology that probably could have been woven in easily. It's a more complicated conversation that Saracho wants to have, one that pulls from feminist and queer studies and can name-check Gloria Anzaldúa and new mestiza consciousness without skipping a beat.
If this sounds too much like homework, let me add that Vida is the sexiest show on TV. Period. And it's a show that uses its frank sexuality in ways that move the plot forward and, more important, move characters forward. Sex in Vida can be fulfilling and satisfying or it can be self-destructive. It can be generous or selfish. It can be raunchy and kinky and lewd and look-away-from-the-TV graphic. It can also be erotic and sensual, extending away from the sex to the show's treatment of East L.A., which finds the neighborhood's beauty without romanticizing it.
Vida is also strongly acted throughout. The first season focused on Emma's psychic damage, and that mixture of repression and lashing out continues to showcase Prada as a raw and fierce force. She also has sizzling chemistry with Colindrez, whose swagger and cool are effortless and make her like no other love interest currently on TV. And Barrera makes a big leap in the new episodes, which break down Lyn's superficiality and repair her, from a deep funk, creating a more interesting character. In a show that isn't a pure comedy but still generates performance-based humor, Barrera can be absurdly funny. A late episode sends Lyn on a drug trip that lets Barrera push for several laughs, including a line reading of "Tacos!" that had me in stitches. Kudos again to Anzoategui and to supporting standouts including Renee Victor, Castillo and Miranda, who finally made me like Johnny by the end of the season.
By any definition, this has already been a remarkable year for half-hour series created by and focused on women, with shows like Better Things, Russian Doll, Fleabag, PEN15, Dead to Me and more already poised for top 10 lists. Vida isn't as formally adventurous as the best shows in that grouping, but it's as well-acted and attuned to female dynamics (human dynamics, really). It has a setting and a language that are its own, elevating a very good show to something quite vital.
Cast: Melissa Barrera, Mishel Prada, Karen Ser Anzoategui, Chelsea Rendon, Robert Colindrez, Raul Castillo, Carlos Miranda, Maria Elena Laas
Creator: Tanya Saracho
Airs Sunday nights at 9 p.m. (Starz); premieres May 26