Starz’s Vida might pose a challenge to some viewers. It’s not immediately engaging (especially in its pilot episode), it tells an oft-told story (children return home after the death of a parent), and it doesn’t always feel cohesive. But at the same time, it’s also effortlessly charming, it’s clearly building to something big, and it’s switching up the familiar narrative by centering it around queer and/or Latinx folks.
The main story in Vida, as we’re introduced to it in the pilot, is about Emma (Mishel Prada) and Lyn (Melissa Barrera), two estranged sisters who are brought back together, and back home, after their mother Vidalia suddenly dies. The sisters are quickly characterized: Emma steeling herself to reenter Boyle Heights after building a new life in Chicago); Lyn, unsure of how to proceed or be an adult, surrounded by countless flan that she can’t even eat because she’s vegan. Their reunion is quick and awkward, as Lyn quickly breaks down but Emma doesn’t quite know how to react to her sister’s hug.
There’s a near-tangible tension in the episode’s early moments with Emma, Lyn, and Eddy (Ser Anzoategui), their mother’s soft-spoken butch “roommate” who takes care of all the plans according to Vidalia’s will. But Emma has no idea who Eddy is, and had no idea that Vidalia was even sick (Lyn claims ignorance too, but it doesn’t seem like Emma believes her). The sisters are plagued by their inability to communicate, so much so that when Lyn brings it up, Emma immediately changes the subject rather than own up to it.
The episode loosely takes us through the funeral (only Lyn cries) and through the reception held at La Chinita, the bar Vidalia owned. It’s here where Vida most establishes its tone, blending the inherent sadness of burying a parent with the unignorable awkwardness of these gatherings: kisses from near-strangers with too much lipstick, hiding from old flames and their new partners, running into people from your past during an already low moment, judging people even as you know they’re judging you, too. Eddy, meanwhile, mourns by drinking too much on an empty stomach; reactions hint that this isn’t exactly a one-time thing.
For Lyn, she spots an old boyfriend Johnny (Carlos Miranda) with his pregnant fianceea former classmate who used to call her “Abercrombie and Bitch”and doesn’t hesitate to follow him outside the second he’s alone. It’s not long before the two are having sex on the alley stairsmaybe it’s grief, maybe Lyn’s jealous or competitive, or maybe there’s something there that the two can’t ignore. Or, likely, it’s a combination of all three. But either way, it’s here that Lyn learns something: Eddy wasn’t just her mother’s roommate, but her wife of two years.
Vida, which was already interesting, now begins to really pick up. Emma’s mad at Eddy and Lyn for keeping it a secret (Lyn vaguely says, “I didn’t know, but I didn’t not know, you know what I mean?” which yeah, actually makes total sense!) but she’s also surprisingly angry at her mother. It’s pretty clear what we’re supposed to make of this anger, especially since she keeps calling Vidalia a “hypocrite” (and there was the earlier scene with a woman, Cruz, that seemed almost too intimate for a blanket “I’m sorry about your loss” moment), but Vida dances around Emma’s queernessat least for now, since the trailers have made it pretty clear that it’s going to be at the forefront. But this reveal leads to more questions: Why wasn’t Vidalia open with her daughters, and especially Emma? What did Vidalia do to Emma to make her call her mother a hypocrite? And how does Eddy fit into the family’s plans?
As it turns out, Vidalia split the bar (and apartment building) between Emma, Lyn, and Eddy but they definitely won’t agree on what to do with itwhich sets up one of the season-long arcs. Emma wants to sell (she already met a slimy guy outside the reception who is willing to help, though Eddy warns against him) and Lyn somewhat agrees because, well, mostly she just doesn’t want anything to do with the “adult” stuff and sure as hell doesn’t want to manage a bar. But she’s also hesitant because about half the apartment tenants are still undocumented. When Emma says she doesn’t really care if those tenants would be able to rent elsewhere, Lyn shoots back with “What kind of Mexican would I be if I didn’t care?” and brings up “what happened” to their father who, presumably, was deported.
There are a few exchanges like this in Vida, where events that would normally be spelled out in dramatic, hour-long family-oriented series are instead talked around, mentioned in passing, almost shrugged away. It’s a quality that works (especially for a short series: half-hour, only six episodes) because it also mirrors the real-life way we compartmentalize and shut down specific events in our brains, how we can only talk about them without actually talking about them. Vida almost unfolds almost like a play, in six acts, which makes sense because showrunner Tanya Saracho was previously a playwright.
The biggest complaint I have about the pilot is that it wasn’t paired with the second episodeone that further establishes why we’re rooting for the sisters, but we’ll get there next week. As it is, it sometimes feels disjointed. The episode opened with a young woman Mari (Chelsea Rendon) vlogging about the gentefication of the neighborhood“this occupation, this recolonization”before abruptly shifting to Vidalia’s death. It seems like it’s part of a separate show until Mari pops up again to argue with a white reporter (hilariously calling her “Becky” and “Warby Parker bitch”) and runs into the sisters, hurling insults (“bougie,” “puta”) at them as well. Mari, by the way, also happens to be Johnny’s little sister. And then there’s the mysterious, silent little girl in the pink dress who Emma spots twice on the roof (the second time, the girl flips her off)that, too, feels like a separate world, even when the end reveals the girl exists on a mural across the street from the bar.
But still, it’s a lovely introduction to Vidaand it makes the case for sticking around.