Scripted TV has tackled the subject of gentrification a lot in the recent past. Search Party, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, She’s Gotta Have It, Girls, the web series The North Pole, BoJack Horseman, The Last O.G., High Maintenance: In ways large and small, all of these shows and others have shed light on what the transformation of American cities (mostly New York and L.A.) looks like, from the perspective of the young people doing the gentrifying and the neighborhood old-timers watching their communities get whited out.
But even in this environment, the new Starz series Vida feels like something new. The half-hour dramedy, created by Tanya Saracho, who staffed her writers room with exclusively Latinx writers, focuses on two Mexican-American sisters returning home to their transforming East Los Angeles neighborhood in the wake of their mother’s death. After they realize their mom’s will has left them in charge of the apartment building and the downstairs bar she operated — and that they must share ownership with a wife they did not know their mother had — they struggle to decide whether to hold onto this mainstay in their own lives and the Boyle Heights community or potentially sell it to a developer known for acquiring and polishing up real estate. Vida doesn’t address gentrification through a single story line, episode, or a few lines of dialogue; it’s embedded in the premise of the whole series and in the identities of the characters it thoughtfully portrays.
Emma (Mishel Prada), the older, more responsible sibling, is a no-nonsense career woman who was living in Chicago and has long been estranged from both her mom and her sister, Lyn (Melissa Barrera), the flittier of the two. Lyn, more of a job- and partner-hopper, also left L.A. behind, having relocated to San Francisco. When they come home for the funeral of their mother, Vidalia — nickname Vida — it’s immediately obvious that they function as both insiders and outsiders, young women who grew up here and know these streets but who also look at the place now as though they’re peering in from afar. That dual status gives the show a unique perspective on urban renewal, one that’s intertwined with other identifiers such as sexual orientation — Emma is a closeted lesbian, and many of the people who hang out at Vida’s bar, like its proprietor, fall under the LGBTQ umbrella — as well as race and ethnicity. Marisol (Chelsea Rendon of Bright and The Fosters), a young activist who is loudly, proudly anti-gentrification, both online and when she has a can of spray paint in her hand, calls out Emma and Lyn for being “Chipsters” — Chicana hipsters who have traded in their Mexican roots and assumed more pretentious, snobby, and stereotypically white personas. Both women chafe at the accusation, but clearly wonder if there might be some truth to it.
Given the subject matter, Vida could easily become didactic or preachy. Fortunately, it doesn’t because the writers and directors are so attentive to telling personal stories that shine a light on broader social issues, as opposed to approaching their narrative the other way around. They pay attention to details in a way that magnifies subtext without pumping up the font too large. In the fourth episode — there are six total in this first season — Lyn becomes acquainted with a wealthy, white artist and winds up partying at his house, where a Latina woman is constantly cleaning up the messes made by the guy’s careless, mostly white friends. When one houseguest vomits all over the pristine white patio, a vocally fried young woman says she feels badly for the housekeeper. “Don’t worry about it,” says the hipster host. “That’s what she’s here for.”
The discomfort and shock of that statement immediately registers on Lyn’s face. Toward the end of the episode, the camera captures both Lyn and the cleaning woman sitting on a bus and heading back to the side of L.A. where they came from, but located aisles apart from each other. It’s an image that says a great deal about the distance between the wealthy — or at least perceived wealthy — and the working class, as well as the divides that separate people of the same ethnicity, a constant theme on Vida.
Initially, Emma and Lyn come across as the latest takes on stock characters we’ve seen before: the emotionally chilly, driven businesswoman and the sexy bohemian whose self-worth is governed by the men in her life. While these descriptions are not inaccurate, as the season continues, both the writing and the performances by Prada and Barrera reveal greater depths in both of these women, a progression that connects directly to the way communities are often perceived based on their façades rather than the soul underneath.
That’s not to say everything in Vida receives the kind of care and attention it deserves. Although we get meaningful glimpses of the grief that consumes Vida’s widow, Eddy (Ser Anzoategui), we don’t quite get a full sense of her character. That’s true of other supporting players, too, particularly in the romantic subplots, both of which involve former lovers of Lyn and Emma — played, respectively, by Carlos Miranda and Maria Elena Laas — who still loom large in their lives. Given the brevity of the season, perhaps that’s unavoidable. Still, an inordinate amount of that brief time is devoted to sex scenes, some of which, though not all, seem unnecessary and designed more to arouse than enrich the story.
That said, Vida accomplishes a lot in only six episodes, more than some shows that loiter and linger for 13-plus hour-long installments. It establishes a strong sense of place and self — the dialogue frequently hopscotches between Spanish and English without ever feeling the need to translate — while provocatively poking at the hornet’s nest of feelings stirred up by home, grief, cultural identity, and the fear that as a society we are purging and rehabbing away the things that should be considered precious. At its best, Vida hints at all of those ideas in moments that are marvelously straightforward and simple, as it does in the second episode when Lyn, a vegan, momentarily surrenders her dietary principles to dig a fork into one of the many flans that have been left behind by mourners.
“God,” Lyn says, her eyes rolling with pleasure as the familiar custard melts in her mouth for what isn’t the first time, but feels like it. “I had forgotten about flan.”