In the second scene of the new Starz drama-comedy Vida, a woman dies. The sequence is shot hauntingly, both the character and viewers instantly aware that something serious is about to happen. She collapses, blood pouring out onto the white tile of a bathroom, the striking aerial shot becoming the series’s first title card. This is Vida, a show so instantly sure of itself in its very first moments.
Vida stars Melissa Barrera and Mishel Prada as Lyn and Emma, two polar-opposite Chicana sisters who reluctantly return to their neighborhood on the east side of Los Angeles in the wake of their mother’s death, as depicted in that catalyzing early scene. The sisters’ fraught dynamic is established right away, with Lyn asking Emma if their mother’s death can please override her “cuntiness” for a bit. The pilot then takes them through the funeral, shot austerely, a glimmer of the good parts of the sisters’ relationship peeking through in the form of their clasped hands. From there, they go to the reception, held in the bar their mother Vidalia owned with Eddy (Ser Anzoategui, who uses they/them pronouns), a roommate Emma never knew about. Emma eventually storms out, Lyn hooks up with an ex, and they both learn that Eddy wasn’t just a roommate and business partner. She was Vidalia’s wife.
From the start, Vida’s visual storytelling is immersive. The camerawork is reminiscent of Friday Night Lights — lots of close-ups on hands, bobbing shots with so much movement to them that the camera feels emotionally tethered to the narrative. At the reception, the camera follows a child as he runs through the crowd with a plate of food. It also languidly follows Lyn as she makes her way out of the busy bar and down to the cellar, feebly pretending she doesn’t know exactly what she’s chasing: her ex Johnny (Carlos Miranda).
In the cellar, Lyn breaks down, and then Johnny goes down on her, the transition hilariously jarring yet expected all at once. She makes an off-hand comment about his “baby mama” upstairs — a woman named Carla whom Lyn not-so-fondly remembers used to call her “Abercrombie and bitch” in school — and the rosy light of their funeral hookup fades fast. It’s clear there’s a long history between the two. Vida wastes no time in setting up its character dynamics, its voice, its fully compelling and grounded visuals.
Meanwhile, Emma’s outside, meeting one of the human faces of the series’s true villain, gentrification. Nelson is a developer, and it’s clear from the way he talks about the neighborhood, asserting that he’s part of it while also welcoming change, that he doesn’t have the bar’s best interests in mind. After all, he shows up at a funeral to hand a business card to the daughter of the dead — that’s not exactly something a good guy does.
Eddy warns Emma about Nelson at episode’s end, but she doesn’t want to hear it. She’s still reeling from the revelation that her mother married a woman. Twice, she calls her mom a hypocrite, something Lyn wonders about and the show leaves to unravel later. But the implication is pretty obvious: Emma is probably queer, and her mother probably didn’t approve. We already know she and her mother had a rocky relationship, another dynamic that’s established right away without feeling like heavy-handed exposition. Vida makes great use of the old adage “show, don’t tell,” weaving a dynamic and layered pilot without just being an info dump. It’s fittingly full of life.
Its comedic voice comes through right away, too. The very first scene introduces us to Marisol (Chelsea Rendon), the supercharged vlogger who has made fighting the gentrification of her neighborhood her foremost mission. Rendon harnesses Mari’s tirades against colonialism and appropriation with a fierce energy that’s tinged with comedy, even though Mari’s passion is definitely sincere. Confronting a white reporter filming a video outside a neighborhood restaurant, Mari calls her a “Warby Parker bitch.”
Barrera also gets some funny line readings in: At the reception, when Emma observes that no one wants to say hi to her anyway, Lyn quips, “That’s probably true.” In an altercation between Emma and Mari — who accuses the sisters of being “whitetinas” — Mari says she remembers Emma “used to walk around here all bougie and stuck up and shit,” and Lyn says, dryly, “Yep, that’s her.”
Emma remains stoic throughout the pilot, resistant to letting people from her past back in, staunchly stuck-up about her surroundings, making a snide comment about people still “stuck” in her neighborhood. But her grief pulsates just under the surface throughout, finally bursting forward when she joins Lyn in watching a home video of them as girls, dancing with their mother. “Welcome the fuck home,” Lyn says earlier, after their run-in with Mari (who, by the way, is Johnny’s younger sister). Vida’s instant sense of place has that specific, complicated feeling of home.