'Vida' Season 3: TV Review

VIDA -Publicity still 1 - H 2020
Still one of TV's most distinct and compelling series.

The Starz drama about gentrification, Mexican-American identity, community and sexuality returns for its third and final season.

When Starz's Vida debuted in the spring of 2018, it was, even in the era of Peak TV, a series patently like no other.

Centered on two estranged sisters returning to the home and the bar they grew up in after the death of their difficult mother, the half-hour drama was one of a handful of shows about Latinx characters and might well be the first series ever to feature a queer Latina lead. Tonally, Vida made for a vitalizing brew, blending family melodrama, envelope-pushing sex scenes, sociological analyses of the natural fissures within a Mexican American neighborhood and thorny questions about identity, community and gentrification.

Eschewing the simplistic binary between white gentrifiers and brown victims, creator Tanya Saracho made sisters Emma (Mishel Prada) and Lyn (Melissa Barrera) the "coconuts" (brown on the outside, white on the inside) viewed as outsiders in the neighborhood they were raised in and by. As the new owners of the bar and the adjoining apartment building, Emma and Lyn couldn't continue their deceased mother's M.O., which was racking up debt by the month. But forging an alternate path for the neighborhood establishment by bringing in a more moneyed clientele and enforcing the bar's youthful, feminist- and queer-friendly reorientation was bound to alienate longtime customers and others invested in preserving the community's roots.

Season two, which focused on Emma and Lyn's efforts to pave that path for themselves, is Vida's richest. Granted, it's always gratifying to luxuriate in the world Saracho has created, filled with clashing L.A.s, Spanglish, sex, spells, street murals and, specific to the third and final season, a "queer-ceañera" and a Latinx drag-king show. The dialogue, thought up by TV's first all-Latinx writers room, is by turns lacerating and brutally funny, with high-low jokes (like "Profiterole Díaz," the malapropism that Lyn mistakes for the Mexican dictator Porfirio Díaz) that seem to belong to this universe and this universe only.

But Vida's six-part farewell season also feels gangly, its ambitions outstripping its execution. I'm only being as hard on the show as I am because, for most of its run, it's been a triumph of personal vision and uncompromising complexity. Season three is absolutely fine by the standards of most television, but for the swan song of a series this special and unique, I wanted, probably unfairly, unblemished magnificence.

Though the third season is set just a few days after the events of the second, it's in many ways a reset of the series. The bar, for once, is thriving, and the sisters are enmeshed in happy-ish relationships — Emma with bartender Nico (Roberta Colindrez) and Lyn with city councilman Rudy (Adrian Gonzalez).

But as soon as gorgeous, insecure Lyn, responding to an invitation to be by Rudy's side at an event, half-jokingly declares, "Being shown off is one of my favorite things," it's hard not to feel frustrated that, at the start of the show's third season, the characters have made so little progress (though the delivery of that line, along with so many others, seals the versatile Barrera as the series' MVP). And when a tornado rushes at Emma and Nico in the guise of the latter's ex (Cara Santana) and hyper-wary Emma's first instinct is to batten down the hatches to her heart, that frustration blooms anew.

Eddy (Ser Anzoategui), the widow of Emma and Lyn's mother, tells the sisters that their father, long thought to be dead, is alive and preaching just a few miles away. The sisters' disagreement over how to broach this revelation divides them once again. They settle into their preordained roles — Emma the walled-off skeptic and Lyn the impetuous seeker practically asking to be hurt again — but the storyline does answer, albeit in a rushed way, many of the questions that Emma and Lyn had about their mysterious mother that they never got to ask her.

Similarly shortchanged — though ultimately much more developed — is activist Marisol (Chelsea Rendon), whose passion for the Boyle Heights neighborhood doesn't translate into a reliable community, or even a secure home, within it. Unlike businesswoman Emma or trend-chasing Lyn, Mari always leads with her heart — a way of existence that blinded her to the insidious misogyny within both her activist group and her own family.

Mari's disillusionment with her fellow protesters feels uncharacteristically ungenerous for the show, but the character's search for more effective ways to fight injustice — and her efforts to break the cycles of toxic masculinity within her family by getting her brother Johnny (Carlos Miranda) to see what their father cannot — ends up as the season's most moving storyline. Mari understands, perhaps better than anyone else, that it's possible, even necessary, to respect our elders while reevaluating traditions and creating new ones. On Vida, there's no other way to survive.

Cast: Melissa Barrera, Mishel Prada, Ser Anzoategui, Chelsea Rendon, Carlos Miranda, Roberta Colindrez
Creator: Tanya Saracho
Showrunner: Tanya Saracho
Premieres: Sunday, 9 p.m. ET/PT (Starz)