'Vida,' on Starz, is a Proud Latinx & Queer Family Drama

by Jason St. Amand

National News Editor

Friday May 4, 2018

The new family drama "Vida," debuting May 6 on Starz, plays out like a small indie drama but with Shakespearean proportions. Over six half-hour episodes, the show feels like a breakthrough Sundance movie that's lean, mean and full of vibrant personality.

Created by writer Tanya Saracho ("Girls," "Looking"), "Vida" follows two vastly different Mexican-American sisters - Emma (Mishel Prada) and Lyn (Melissa Barrera) - who return to their childhood home in East L.A. after their mother suddenly dies. Their journey back home also comes with a lot of baggage, including facing old ghosts, former lovers and hometown drama. On top of that, the sisters quickly learn that their mother, Vida, had a shocking secret about her "roommate" Eddy (Ser Anzoategui).

Getting affairs in order and matters resolved in the wake of their mother's passing won't be easy for the sisters. Things become awkward and intense when it is revealed Vida included Eddy in her will and that the bar she owned should be shared three ways. Much of the season finds the sisters and Eddy figuring out how to handle the bar, which is in major debt and also includes an apartment complex that's home to a number of undocumented residents, and whether or not they should sell the establishment or continue to run it.

Complicating things is that Emma and Lyn are constantly bumping up against each other. The stylish and snooty Emma is ready to move on from her estranged mother's passing, return to her job in Chicago and go back to ignoring her sister. An aimless Lyn, however, is cherishing escaping her boy problems and money woes and reconnecting with friends and family. After years of running away from her family and her past, Emma now has to confront the trauma she's buried for so long. And Lyn can't avoid drama, making her stay tenser than a telenovela.

Chelsea Rendon and Ramses Jimenez in a scene from "Vida." Photo credit: Starz

What makes "Vida" special, however, is how unapologetically Latinx and queer it is. Throughout the six episodes provided for review, the series is a refreshing and authentic Spanish-English drama - still a rarity on TV - that tackles heavy subjects. Chief among them is gentrification and the changing landscape of the sisters' hometown.

"Vida" also features a vigilante vlogger Marisol (Chelsea Rendon) fighting against hipsters and white people invading her neighborhood. She's often seen spray-painting buildings and homes taken over by outsiders and being vocal about issues she cares deeply about on her vlog. Marisol is a fleshed out character who gets her own story arch as she and her brother Johnny (Carlos Miranda) get intertwined with Emma and Lyn. Despite feeling like an authentic character, Marisol's important story often feels like a blatant B-plot that is tacked onto "Vida." Nevertheless, Marisol gives texture to the show, offering a viewpoint rarely expressed on TV.

"Vida" is also upfront with its queerness and doesn't hesitate to show explicate sex acts that most film and TV would be too shy to show. In one breathtaking episode, Emma, who is a queer woman herself, intends to explore the local nightlife scene to help market her mother's bar, which she now co-owns along with her sister and Eddy. After being gone from her hometown for years, transforming herself into a put-together young professional, Emma is finally able to put her hair down and let loose. She eventually ends up at a local queer bar, meeting up with a former love interest and reconnecting with her as well as some locals. For the guarded Emma, it's a beautiful expression of queer love told in a specific place, again something so rare on TV.

Through its main characters and the nuances between them, "Vida" also digs into religion, adultery, classism, passing, and even racism expressed among marginalized people. In one hilarious scene, Emma takes issue with the name of her mother's bar "La Chinita," which translates to "little Chinese girl," which also features a sign with a geisha on it.

Mishel Prada, left, and Melissa Barrera, right, in a scene from "Vida." Photo credit: Starz

"That's racist," Emma says.

"It's historic, it like honors the Japanese culture," Eddy says.

When Emma points out the name of the bar, Eddy responds by saying, "Well...it's a little Japanese chinita."

"I know some people around here are OK with casual racism...but I'm not and [the sign] has to come down. We need all the help we can get and this branding isn't helping," Emma says.

When Lyn shows up during their conversation, Emma explains the situation, calling their mother an "unwoke dinosaur," and how the bar's "racially tone deaf" sign and name kept customers away.

It's a small moment that almost feels inconsequential to the scope of the show, but it's a scene that highlights the complexities "Vida" can dive into. From homophobia to the relationships within a dynamic family to the "responsibilities" these women feel they have to each other and to their community, "Vida" packs a powerful punch in just 30 minutes. It's an honest show coming from a singular perspective that only makes the TV landscape a better and more interesting place.

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