The magic of Vida, which returns Sunday for a second season on Starz, lies in the way it marries specificity—of culture, of place, of sexuality—with universality. Tanya Saracho, the playwright and TV writer who created the series, layers texture and tiny details throughout her story, keenly aware of how loaded simple objects can be. In Vida, even a brand of hot sauce can be a powerful signal of identity, as well as a portal to childhood memories. A wall of scribbles and Polaroid photos in a bar isn’t just graffiti—it’s a portrait of a community, and a message to other patrons that a space is safe for them, too.
Season 1 captured a homecoming that precipitated major revelations and personal roller coasters. The sisters Emma (played by Mishel Prada) and Lyn Hernandez (Melissa Barrera) returned to Boyle Heights, in Los Angeles, after the death of their mother, Vidalia—known as “Vida”—only to discover that she had been keeping secrets. These included the fact that she had a wife, Eddy (Ser Anzoategui), despite having thrown Emma out of her house years earlier for being gay. In addition, Vida’s bar was financially underwater, and a predatory local mortgage broker was looking to foreclose on it and turn the building into high-end condos. In the final episode of Season 1, Eddy was brutally beaten in a homophobic attack after being driven out of the bar by Emma. The event forced both sisters to see that their mother’s business was more than bad debt—it was a linchpin for a community who understood it to be their home as much as Emma and Lyn did.
In just six episodes, with a team staffed entirely of Latinx writers, Saracho crafted a story rooted in personal experiences. Vida’s first season explored subjects as complex as gentefication and internalized homophobia, capturing Emma’s fierce anger at her mother for the shame she made Emma feel about herself, as well as the efforts of local activists to preserve their community. But the show also considered broader themes: grief, nostalgia, sisterhood, hope. In the Season 1 finale, Emma and Lyn determined that they wanted to try and keep the bar open, culminating in a gorgeous final shot as the women watched the sun rise over their neighborhood, the cityscape of downtown L.A. shimmering in the distance.
In the second season, which has been expanded into 10 half-hour episodes, the partnership between the sisters remains fragile, while the financial effort to save the bar is an uphill battle. Lyn is still hedonistic, selfish, and chaotic; Emma is as emotionally withholding, icy, and demanding as ever. (“You are the classic cautionary tale of why mothers need to hug their children,” a girlfriend tells her.) Emma’s efforts to upgrade the bar to attract new clientele and ensure its future enrage community activists, who see bits of the fabric of Boyle Heights being chipped away. Lyn’s mistakes from Season 1—sleeping with her engaged ex, Johnny (Carlos Miranda), and engaging in credit-card fraud—keep catching up with her. Eddy tries to recover from her injuries while also grieving Vida, whose unseen presence looms over the series. She’s there in the blinking neon sign over the bar that bears her name, in the possessions Emma gathers for a garage sale, in the secrets that somehow keep emerging.
But Vida is most present in the sisters, and in the ways their lives reflect how she raised them. Prada communicates how much Emma’s modes of behavior come from her mother’s hurtful (and hypocritical) rejection, and how Emma has constructed armor around herself—lipstick, an immaculately blunt bob, a forbidding affect—that keep other people at arm’s length. Emma is enraged when her appearance is derisively labeled as “baby queer” at a gay wedding in the third episode, as if she’s not yet confident enough in her identity to dress the way she really wants to. The scene itself, with its discussions about sexual “tourism” and gender binaries and the rites of passage of coming out, is anchored in particulars. It’s also riveting, fraught with tension, and set against the backdrop of an event celebrating the relatively new freedom of Americans to love whomever they choose.
Vida is replete with graphic sex scenes, almost all of which serve a distinct purpose. Emma and Lyn’s sexuality is key to understanding them as characters, and sex, in the show, is rarely just about gratification. Saracho has a shrewd awareness of how people often weaponize sex: for distraction, for power, for consolation. Emma has casual encounters with men and women, but it isn’t until the final episode of Season 2 that she gets intimate enough with someone to kiss them. Lyn, as stunted as Emma by Vida’s pronouncements that beauty is her only asset, uses sex as a tool to get what she wants, whether it’s emotional or material. She’s internalized the idea that her effect on men is her currency.
The new episodes continue to ask questions about ownership and identity and authenticity, but always with the acknowledgment of how complex these issues can be. When a new character, Nico (played spectacularly by Roberta Colindrez), makes fun of Emma for her choice of condiment, Emma fights back. “All my life I’ve been policed for being the thing I already am. Why can’t it be a Mexican thing if a Mexican is putting Valentina on a taco?” Lyn, trying to start a live-music night with Latinx artists to bring more business to the bar, is railed against for attracting hipsters to the neighborhood, and slandered online as “Coconut Becky.” Johnny’s sister, Marisol (Chelsea Rendon), is an activist who finds herself in the middle of opposing forces she sympathizes with: the people trying to preserve Boyle Heights in totality, and the people who think even beloved local institutions sometimes have to adapt to stay alive.
That these conversations are happening at all in a mainstream TV drama feels profound. That Saracho is able to weave them so fluently into a series that reverberates with the aches and joys and conflicts of everyday life is remarkable. Vida isn’t special only because it’s putting underrepresented American stories onscreen. It’s special because it’s doing it so well, mining the epic drama and the discrete experiences of its characters’ lives to create something that’s elaborate, distinct, and beautiful all at the same time.
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