'Vida': TV Review | SXSW 2018

Like a slice of Spanglish-infused indie film.
5/6/2018

Starz's half-hour drama about the Latinx community of East Los Angeles is authentic, grounded and like few other shows on TV.

It's no slight to the actual quality of Starz's upcoming Vida to say that my favorite thing about it is how absolutely bizarre it is that this series is on Starz at all.

Set to launch May 6 but getting an early premiere at SXSW, Vida hails from a relatively unproven showrunner (Tanya Saracho), features a cast of variably underknown Latinx actors, unfolds heavily in Spanglish and is unquestionably a half-hour drama. Granted that Starz has been trying to push into the Spanish-language marketplace for years and that The Girlfriend Experience is absolutely one of the rare half-hour dramas on TV, Vida is a show that doesn't really feel like anything the network has ever aired.

Vida focuses on grown-up sisters Emma (Mishel Prada) and Lyn (Melissa Barrera), who return to their East Los Angeles home after the death of their mother. Long estranged from both their mother and each other, Emma and Lyn are hoping to make a quick funeral appearance, sell their mother's struggling bar and leave. Things get immediately more complicated when they meet their mother's "roommate" Eddy (Karen Ser Anzoategui) and are forced to confront a secret that will be immediately obvious to audiences, but takes Eddy and Lyn by surprise. The "secret" forces the two young women to examine their upbringing, while they also reunite with people from their past and confront their neighborhood's changing cultural landscape, a run-amok climate of gentrification that indignantly woke vlogger Marisol (Chelsea Rendon) is fighting against.

There's no inherent reason why Vida has been structured in a half-hour format, and the first two episodes form what is a traditional hourlong pilot and probably should be aired as such, in case Starz is still considering premiere plans. Emma and Lyn are damaged and prickly and unapologetic characters, and the difference in affection I felt for them after two episodes versus after the first 30 minutes was large. That extra time makes Lyn's mixture of naiveté and sexual self-destructiveness make sense and exposes which aspects of Emma's cynicism and apparent prejudices are a well-earned defense mechanism. Barrera, a Mexican actress whose credits include several telenovelas and Netflix's Club de Cuervos, and Prada, whom I vaguely remember from Fear the Walking Dead, have comic moments — Prada with sarcastic scorn and Barrera with a bubbly innocence she can turn on and off — and the series' early episodes feature a couple abrupt sex scenes meant to play partially as funny, but you never really get fooled into thinking that Vida is aiming for humor as its primary tone. The slightly cartoonish gringos, hipsters and neighborhood interlopers — hint: anybody vaping is probably evil — are as close as the show comes to selling out for humor, but none are so central as to be distractingly one-dimensional.

Instead, directors Alonso Ruizpalacios and So Yong Kim strike a chord of authenticity that you'd probably expect to see in a movie playing at Sundance more than on the network behind Ash vs. Evil Dead or that thing where Patrick Stewart yelled a lot. The East L.A. filming is grounded and emphasizes little details — a post-funeral repast table covered in different types of flan, or the horizontal "gentri-fences" that anger Marisol — over broad-stroke celebrations of Mexican-American culture. Nobody shies from acknowledging and depicting that parts of this neighborhood are run-down, but it beats the alternative in which everything has become plastic.

The show is definitely more adventurous in theme and subject matter than visual storytelling. The scripts, by Saracho, with Santa Sierra co-writing the second episode, don't pander by subtitling the hybrid language detours, though everybody feels like they may be talking just a little slowly to make sure the monolingual can keep up. Without piling on our current president and the impact he's having on largely immigrant areas, Vida shows the vulnerability of this community from without and the fractures from within, with a particular emphasis on how different generations respond to gay and queer issues and to female independence.

In addition to Barrera and Prada, the early standout performance comes from Anzoategui, who is another reason Starz should plan on airing a full hour to start. It's hard to get an early read on Eddy and a lot of things I read as wooden from Anzoategui in the first episode become much more clearly a product of the character's sadness. The last scene of the second episode, basically setting up the series to come, proved surprisingly moving due to those three actresses. I hope that several of the thinner supporting characters also improve given more time.

Vida is off-brand for Starz, but other than maybe Showtime, which could pair it with the far more polished SMILF, I don't know what network would make a show like this. The factors that make Vida unique are exactly the sort of things that simultaneously terrify most networks and yet should be much, much more frequent in a landscape in which, with 500-ish scripted shows, doing what the other guys aren't doing should be smart business.

Cast: Melissa Barrera, Mishel Prada, Karen Ser Anzoategui, Chelsea Rendon, Carlos Miranda, Maria Elena Laas
Creator: Tanya Saracho
Premieres: Sunday, May 6 (Starz)