Melissa Barrera and Mishel Prada star in Vida
Photo: Starz
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Tanya Saracho’s Vida, one of The A.V. Club’s best shows of 2018, returns in stronger, sexier, and more spirited form in its second season. The Latinx-led dramedy about two estranged sisters trying to find their way home again—and all the difficulties they encounter in doing so—tells one of TV’s most nuanced stories about identity and immigration, but as its expansive title suggests, it contains so much more. Vida is an engaging family drama and an incisive coming-of-millennial-age comedy, with plenty of social commentary and a unique coming-out story at its core.

From its first moments, Vida has subverted expectations of most immigration/gentrification narratives, in part by focusing almost entirely on the Mexican and Mexican-American characters, who are positioned as natives as well as outsiders. The series follows protagonists Emma (Mishel Prada) and Lyn (Melissa Barrera) Hernandez as they cope with the recent loss of their mother, who took many secrets to her grave that are somehow still finding the light of day. It also explores how the Hernandez sisters can be the antagonists in the lives of their neighbors: Emma and Lyn’s plans to overhaul their mother’s bar would not only destroy one of the few places of refuge for immigrants and queer folks in the city, but they would also tip the balance in favor of the greedy, aesthetic-free real estate developers that longtime residents like Marisol (Chelsea Rendon) have been protesting against. After successfully straddling two worlds and cultures for much of their lives, Emma and Lyn return to their childhood home to find they’re not welcome—they’re called “whitinas,” putas, and worse, gente-fiers. Systemic forces like housing inequality aren’t ignored, but Vida sets up a confrontation where the winners and losers look like they could be family, which makes the stakes both greater and more intimate.

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Vida’s poignant first season ended with Emma and Lyn deciding to reinvest in their mother’s bar and their relationship with each other. Geography hasn’t been the only source of distance between the sisters—they also have distinct, frequently opposing personalities. Lyn is overly expressive with little direction beyond a calendar of outdoor music festivals, while the career-minded Emma is emotionally closed-off. The vibrant, jam-packed first season revealed how their different upbringings sent them on diverging paths: younger daughter Lyn was coddled at home, but the queer Emma (who actually declines to self-define) was sent to Chicago by their at-the-time homophobic mother, who later turned her bar into a beacon for LGBTQ folks. Emma is much more conflicted about their mother’s death, especially once she learns Vidalia was running her queer-friendly bar with her wife, Eddy (Ser Anzoategui). But after realizing what the bar’s real legacy is, Emma and Lyn commit to preserving its standing as a safe haven in the community.

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As the new season begins, Emma, who has some nebulous job in finance that she quits in the premiere, outlines a plan to keep the bar afloat for six months. She painstakingly explains to Lyn that this is all they can afford, and if they have even one bad month, they’ll lose everything. The wolf, usually in the form of Luis Bordonada as developer Nelson Herrera, is always at their door, but Vida hasn’t suddenly become an episode (or 10) of Bar Rescue. The money and renovation problems are a reliable source of drama, but most of the tension and humor still comes from the polar opposite sisters trying to find common ground, with each other and their neighbors. Vida season two delves further into these bonds and conflicts, turning up more of Vidalia’s secrets along the way, a few of which threaten the shaky alliances between Lyn and Emma, as well as the sisters and Eddy.

Mishel Prada and Ser Anzoategui
Photo: Starz

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For much of the first half of season two, Vida feels more episodic than before, dropping in on all the Boyle Heights residents we know by name, including Johnny (Carlos Miranda), who is still trying to patching things up with Karla (Erika Soto) after his affair with Lyn. His sister Marisol continues to rail against capitalism as part of Vigilantes, the activist group waging the fight against the encroaching forces of gentrification and its equally deceptively positive-sounding iteration, “revitalization.” The show also introduces new characters like Baco (Looking alum Raúl Castillo), a contractor who initially rubs Emma the wrong way (but eventually learns how to do it the right way), councilman Rudy Marquez (Adrian Gonzalez), a new love interest for Lyn, and Nico (Roberta Colindrez), the binary= and label-rejecting bartender who joins the Hernandez sisters in their efforts to save the bar.

The show is frequently at its most compelling when it focuses on the central trio of Emma, Lyn, and Eddy, who are not only navigating being a family, but also still struggle with how they came to be one. It’s clear that Emma’s exile as a teen drove her to put up walls between herself and even her loved ones, and for every moment in season two where she appears to let her guard down, she’s given reason to put it right back up. Anzoategui’s Eddy remains the beating, bruised heart of the show, while Prada, who was the standout in season one, continues to bring great determination and turmoil to the role of Emma. But it’s Lyn, Vidalia’s other prodigal daughter, who ultimately drives the story forward in the new episodes. Lyn previously drifted through life, propelled by the decisions and actions of others. In season two, she tries to make up for her mistakes and avoid making new ones, while also figuring out what she does want from life. Barrera’s always been charming as the lovable, once-aimless Lyn, but in season two, she becomes a force to be reckoned with.

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Chelsea Rendon
Photo: Starz

Vida makes great use of its expanded episode order—each half-hour is full of laughter, tears, music, booze, and of course, sex. Starz’s reputation for featuring some of the steamiest sex scenes has been well-earned through series like Outlander, Power, and The Girlfriend Experience, and Vida proudly carries on that tradition. Whether they’re between former flames or new hook-ups, the sex scenes are equally graphic and erotic; they always reveal how much, or how little, intimacy there is between the partners. The show offers so many varieties, too: there’s blowing-off-steam sex, taking-the-relationship-to-the-next-level sex, stumbling-upon-your-boyfriend’s-kink sex. Vida’s directing roster is fully staffed with Latinas like Gandja Monteiro, Catalina Aguilar Mastretta, and Jenée LaMarque, who ensure that all the vulnerability and flesh on display are handled sensitively. While Vida features a lot of wonderful queer sex, it could also teach more hetero-focused series how to take their sex scenes up a notch or two from frantic grinding.

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While expanding its world, Vida does hit a few snags, as characters like Baco come and go without really being fleshed out, only to return much later to play an important role in one of the leads’ development. Marcos Zamora (Shoplifters Of The World’s Tonatiuh), the PhD student who rents from the Hernandez sisters, is sketched just as lightly—he’s a benevolent figure in Lyn’s life when she needs one the most, but has little interiority. But there are also several new additions and returning characters who are integral to the show’s deeper look at the intersection between marginalized communities, including LGBTQ folks, undocumented immigrants, and residents in underserved neighborhoods. Cruz (Maria-Elena Laas) plays a big part in Emma’s new life in the old barrio early on, but the two women butt heads over labels and the notion of there being dominant narrative for coming out. Emma finds much more communion with Nico, who calls out how even queer folks can play gatekeepers.

Identity remains one of the show’s most significant themes: how it’s defined and claimed, only to be redefined and/or reclaimed. Vida views its characters through multiple lenses—Mexican, Mexican-American, Latinx, Chicanx, gentrifier, displaced person, lesbian, pansexual, heterosexual, nonbinary, and more. It then questions the creation of those constructs, all while taking its two leads through their grieving processes and attempts at reconnection. That’s a lot for any show, especially a half-hour comedy-drama hybrid, to tackle, but Vida and its all-Latinx writers room make it look easy. Although the show occasionally gets tripped up in its world-building, the story it’s telling remains one of the most vital, heartwarming, and fraught on TV.

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