Vida Review: It's Unlike Anything Else On TV

Photo: Courtesy of Starz.
Since Girls came roaring onto the scene in 2012, premium cable has become a bastion for dramedies powered by young women. Thankfully, after Hannah Horvath (Lena Dunham) and her fellow white, well-off pals proved stories about 20-something-year-old young women were just as profitable of tales of middle-aged men behaving monstrously, the series that followed theirs were allowed to be a little more diverse. That is what gave us the Black girl magic of Insecure, the working-class honesty of SMILF, and, now, Starz’s soon-to-arrive Latinx dazzler, Vida.
While Vida’s Sunday night sister show and lead-in Sweetbitter is good, Vida, about two Mexican-American sisters pulled back to their East Los Angeles neighborhood after a tragedy, is truly great. From the second Vida, premiering May 6, begins, it instantly feels like nothing else you’ve ever seen on television.
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I mean, what other show opens with a shot of a Mexican teen girl fixing her gold hoops, reapplying her bright blue lipstick, and announcing, “¿Qué pasa mi raza?” It’s a question that translates to “What’s up, my people?” The wonderfully wing-eyelinered young woman who kicks off Vida is Marisol (Chelsea Rendon), who usually goes by Mari, the teenage upstart trying to protect the working-class, Latinx roots of of the neighborhood at the heart of the dramedy, Boyle Heights.
Soon enough, Mari is saying into the camera, “This is a manifesto, mi gente, so grab a pencil and take note.” It’s a sentiment that works two ways. First, at the surface level, Mari is issuing a rallying cry via iPhone to all of her followers. It’s one against gentrification and displacement, which is an actual crisis in the real-life Boyle Heights, and a major theme in Starz' fictional one. But, on a deeper level, Mari’s statement is declaring that the show to follow has an unassailable point of view; a manifesto of thought. And, the manifesto that reveals itself through the show's six-episode first season is one about the deeply layered complications of love, sex, sexuality, and duty in the Latinx community. What else would you expect from a series with a Mexican-born creator in playwright Tanya Saracho and an all Latinx writers’ room?
While Mari evolves into Vida’s surprise MVP over its freshman year, our vehicles into the dramedy's many nuanced layers are the aforementioned sisters Emma (Mishel Prada) and Lyn (Melissa Barrera). The pair is forced to return to Boyle Heights, where they were raised by their mother Vidalia — aka Vida, get it? — after said family matriarch passes. Although both of the sisters are deeply Mexican, they also have the luxury of easily presenting as white, or, at least, “exotic,” with the kinds of olive skin tones and luxurious waves that can easily hail from the Mediterranean as easily as they can from Central America.
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It’s clear Emma and Lyn both hightailed it out of Boyle Heights the moment they had a chance, leaving them estranged from each other and their mother. Emma eventually settled in Chicago as a high-powered consultant. She’s all business, and her consistently impeccable red lipstick proves as much, although obviously, there are some deep emotional cracks below this perfectly manicured surface. Lyn, the baby of the family, seemingly chose to live the trendy hipster lifestyle of her dreams. She has a white boyfriend named Juniper (Jackson Davis) and plans to open a store for Aztec-inspired lotions. Lyn is the kind of person who wears a floral Coachella-ready, split-up-the-front dress to bury her mother. While both of these women are accused of being “Whitetinas” by Mari, the point of Vida is grappling with this kind of identity indictment and drilling down to why these women are the way they are.
The delicious tension of Vida arises when Emma and Lyn, who expect to return to their bustling, far more affluent lives outside of East L.A. almost immediately after Vida’s funeral, realize things won’t be that easy. Their inheritance from their late mother is the low-income building their family has owned for generations, which houses the beloved neighborhood bar downstairs, and selling it, managing it, or whatever they would like to do with it, is much more complicated than expected. Adding to that difficulty is Vida’s, er, “roommate,” Eddy (non-binary actor Ser Anzoategui), whom Vida also left a chunk of the building to. Since that is not typically a practice common for “roommates,” you can probably guess what kind of secret the late Vidalia was keeping from her daughters.
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This power keg of grief, mistrust, and generational differences takes viewers down some extremely interesting corridors. While the Latinx community is usually shown as a swath of ultra-religious heterosexuals — even on Jane The Virgin, one of TV’s most LGBTQ+-friendly series, all but one of its many bisexual and lesbian characters are coded as existing outside of the Latinx identity — Vida doesn’t live there. Emma’s sexuality is slowly revealed throughout the series, along with the distressing history around it, which led to Emma’s estrangement from her mother. Through Emma’s journey, we get to see an extremely wide spectrum of sexualities living in Boyle Heights. It’s a reminder people of color in lower income neighborhoods aren’t a monolith.
While Emma’s storyline is the true anchor of Vida — and her late-in-the-season acting is some of the best you’ll see all year — Eddy is oftentimes the greatest revelation on your screen. One image, of Eddy silently screaming in a bathtub nude, duh, will stick with you for weeks, if not a lifetime. Upon seeing Eddy, with her short coif and average human body in all its glory, you’ll realize how rare it is to see people in such a natural, unapologetic state. You’ll wish more shows were this honest about the world we all live in.
Actually, nearly everything about Vida will make you wish more shows emulated its relentless honesty. That is why it is certainly worth taking a half hour out of your own vida every week to watch.
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