The new Starz drama Vida begins with what could be an ending: the death of a woman named Vidalia, who owned a building with a bar on the ground floor and apartments above. Her death means that her daughters, both of whom left the Los Angeles neighborhood long ago, must return to make arrangements — among other things, for the future of the building. Emma (Mishel Prada) lives in Chicago and works in business; Lyn (Melissa Barrera) lives in San Francisco and seems to value herself mostly for being beautiful and desired by men.
But when the sisters get back, they are surprised to find that their mother had, without telling them, married a woman named Eddy (Ser Anzoategui), who now owns a third of the bar, just as each sister does. Over six taut, half-hour episodes, the sisters and Eddy have to confront Vida’s passing and what it means for the future of their mental and literal real estate.
One of the strengths of the show is its format. It sounds like faint praise to say that six half-hours is precisely the right presentation of this story, but those who have seen the wrong format for a given show — too long, too baggy, too meandering — know it’s nothing of the kind. Vida gets a lot done in six episodes, and little time is wasted. In addition to the sisters and Eddy, it spends significant time with Marisol, a young and passionate anti-gentrification activist who advocates on videos she posts, and with some other characters closely or tangentially connected to the family. (Alan Sepinwall recently wrote more about the virtues of the half-hour drama.)
It’s a very good, very complicated story about people who keep doing things that are frustrating, that seem to take them either a step backward or a step sideways for no good reason. But it’s not fetishizing self-destructive impulses; it’s just acknowledging them.
Much of the marketing and reception of Vida has, quite understandably, focused on the rarity of its deeply developed queer Latinx characters, as well as its creator and showrunner Tanya Saracho and the entirely Latinx writers’ room. But the show is a great example of the fact that as a network (or any outlet that features anyone’s creations), you don’t pursue an inclusive mix of shows and voices to prove your virtue; you do it to make great pieces of specific, effective work.
Here, for instance, gentrification is a plot point — not just a plot point, but a dominant dynamic running through the story. Not for its own sake, but because returning home upon the death of a parent is a familiar piece of storytelling, and for these characters, who grew up in this specific place, gentrification is a huge part of what they’re dealing with, just as they’d be coping with a particular set of challenges if they owned a farm in Michigan. When you have a long history of lagging representation of entire segments of voices, as English-language television does, you don’t just rob people of the opportunity to see their stories told, but you lose access to wide bands of experience for all your viewers. Particularly as shows proliferate, the more you grant creative control to more different people, the more classic story points are refracted through a variety of lenses.
These characters feel … settled in their own bones. They feel created from the inside out rather than the outside in. Vida is free of, as my friends over at Code Switch would say, the explanatory comma. And when you can artfully avoid the explanatory comma, it’s better for the people who do recognize their own upbringing in what you’ve created, because they’re not interrupted by reminders that people are watching who will treat their foundational experiences as exotic. And it’s better for people who are only visiting this world, because if a show is well made, then what you don’t know, you can figure out. Non-Spanish-speaking viewers, for instance, are likely to notice that there is some Spanish spoken in the show that is not subtitled — for me, it was enough that I was glad I still have some of my high school Spanish rattling around in my skull, but it wasn’t anything that would confuse anyone who didn’t.
When you get to the end of these six episodes, you may feel like the story is really just starting. But as an opening to a pleasantly complicated family drama, Vida is off to a very solid start.