tv review

Vida’s Latinx, Female, Queer Perspective Is More Distinctive — and Vital — Than Ever in Season Two

Chelsea Rendon as Mari in Vida. Photo: Kat Marcinowski/Starz

The fact that Vida has the first all-Latinx writers room on television makes it a groundbreaking TV series. That’s also what makes it a very good TV series.

In its second season, premiering Thursday on Starz, Vida continues to explore family, romantic, and neighborhood relationships within the Boyle Heights section of East L.A. with careful attention to detail, a sense of intimacy, and an innate understanding of the dynamics at play in the Mexican-American and queer communities where its stories are centered. It’s the sort of show that’s engaging no matter who you are, but surely makes anyone who is part of those communities feel recognized in a way that the vast majority of television does not. A half-hour drama like Vida couldn’t be made without Latinx people — including showrunner Tanya Saracho, who hired several queer writers and, with one exception, only those who identify as female — shaping it into existence. Well, it could. But it wouldn’t be as fully realized and honest as Vida is, and that’s important on a series that wrestles, in various contexts, with the notion of being true to one’s self and the culture that shaped you.

After establishing its origin story in season one — two sisters, the diametrically opposed Emma (Mishel Prada) and Lyn (Melissa Barrera), return to their Boyle Heights neighborhood after their mother dies and they inherit the apartment building and bar she owned — season two immediately jumps back into the action as the Hernandez sisters continue to renovate the bar and navigate a host of other issues. A big one: taking care of Eddy (Ser Anzoategui), the wife they didn’t know their mother had until after she passed away. Last season, Eddy was badly beaten up in a bar fight and, as this season begins, is still recovering from major injuries that require her to have regular care. Emma and Lyn disagree about how to manage that care and how to divvy up the responsibilities at Vida, the bar they’ve named after their mother and that Eddy feels is partly hers. That becomes complicated, too, when Emma discovers that Eddy and her mother may not have been legally married, and the will that left decisions in Eddy’s hands may not not have been official, either.

These ten episodes also continue to explore the love lives of Lyn — who keeps running into an ex, Johnny (Carlos Miranda), from whom she’s supposed to be keeping her distance — and Emma, who develops an attraction to Nico (Roberta Colindrez, delivering a fully lived-in, laid-back performance), a grounded and talented bartender she meets at a wedding, then hires to help at Vida. In the background, at all times, is the constant tug-of-war between purists trying to maintain Boyle Heights’ original character and those who are perceived as gentrifying away its soul. Emma and Lyn have a foot in each camp. They grew up in the neighborhood and loathe the developer who keeps lurking around, hoping he can seduce them into selling their mother’s building so he can redevelop it. But they also lived in other cities for years before returning, and, in their effort to turn Vida into a bar that attracts a larger crowd, gain a reputation, especially among an anti-gentrification group called the Vigilantes, as business people more interested in making a buck than maintaining a sense of history.

When Emma says she’s not sure what upsets the neighbors so much about an advertisement she has painted on an exterior wall of the bar, she’s offered a simple answer by Mari (Chelsea Rendon), Johnny’s sister and a member of the Vigilantes whom Emma hires to help out with Eddy. “Erasure,” Mari says. “They just don’t want to be erased.”

Erasure is Vida’s speciality, in a way. This is a series about how being part of a marginalized group can be both galvanizing and doubly marginalizing when other members of that group perceive you as not quite worthy of membership. Emma, who has only recently come out more publicly as queer, bristles when a younger, more open woman keeps referring to her as a “baby queer.” At one point, a viral video refers to Lyn as Coconut Becky for her perceived interest in courting white clientele. At various times, Lyn, Emma, and especially Eddy question whether they really belong at Vida, which was once considered an LGBTQ safe space.

At the same time, Vida consistently illustrates the way that shared language and heritage can bridge the distances between people. Almost everyone on this show hopscotches, often mid-sentence, between English and Spanish and back again, speaking in full Spanish clauses that are never translated (nor should they be). They refer to Micheladas and arrechera and other traditional Mexican drinks and dishes. But they never pause, as they might have to on another series, to explain what they mean for the benefit of a non-Latinx audience. That’s not what they would do in real life, and Vida, as the subtext of its title suggests, is extremely committed to capturing life as it actually unfolds

In that spirit, Vida also regularly depicts sex with a camera that patiently and plainly displays every exposed nipple and hand fumbling its way inside a pair of unbuttoned jeans. With the possible exception of an extraneous orgy sequence that opens the first episode, these scenes each serve a function, revealing something about character or the nature of the relationships between the people getting physical. The perspective in all of these scenes is distinctly female. More than once, we watch a woman come slowly to climax, which is something that isn’t seen on TV very often. The woman’s point of view serves as a guiding principle, and that makes sense given this other distinguishing detail about Vida’s second season: Every one of its ten episodes was directed by a woman.

The season ends with an explosive incident and one particularly important revelation about something Vida kept hidden from her daughters, which emphasizes another of the series’ major themes. While Vida is a series that embraces people who have been pushed to the fringes by a white-hetero-dominant culture, it’s also very much about family, and how being part of one means inheriting secrets, memories, debts, bitterness, and belongings that may take years to unpack.

Vida’s Latinx POV Is More Distinctive, and Vital, Than Ever