Vida’s richly complex exploration of Lantinx, queer and female perspectives is vibrant and vital

Created by first-time showrunner and accomplished Mexican-American playwright Tanya Saracho, the first season of Vida was an intimate triumph (and one of our Top 50 shows of 2018). Shaped by an all-Lantinx (and mostly queer) writers room, last year’s run of six, half-hour episodes was a brief but carefully observed introduction into the Boyle Heights section of East L.A. – as seen through the lens of it’s Mexican-American and LGBTQ communities. Through poignant stories of love, loss and family – season one organically explored issues of race, gentrification, class status and sexual identity with sensitivity and a sense of authenticity.

Centered around two estranged sisters, Emma (Mishel Prada) and Lyn (Melissa Barrera), who return to their old neighbourhood after the passing of their mother Vidalia – tragedy takes a turn when they learn that their mom’s housemate, Eddy (Ser Anzoategui), is actually her wife. This fact isn’t just shocking, it deeply wounds Emma, who was banished as a teen for coming out as lesbian. To complicate matters, the diametrically opposed sisters and Eddy inherit the apartment building and bar Vidalia owned. Although the property is decrepit and drowning in debt, the three are compelled to save a space that means so much to their community.

This improved second season grows out of season one’s foundations, delving deep to unpack warring dynamics on multiple levels. On a familial level, Lyn and Emma could not be any more different. Lyn is outwardly loveable – gorgeous, expressive and open. But her selfishness and lack of direction frequently ruins the people closest to her. On the flip side, Emma is cold and emotionally walled-off, fueled by resentment of her mother, sister and Eddy, who remains as a living reminder of Vidalia’s hypocrisy. But she is smart, industrious and admirably self-sacrificial – willing to leave her lucrative corporate job in Chicago to shoulder this new burden.

Meanwhile, Eddy’s grief is compounded by the severe, life-threatening injuries she sustained in a bar fight late last season. Emma’s active process in helping Eddy recover, alongside Lyn’s newfound dedication to leading a more productive life (spurred after her lust unintentionally wrecks her ex’s marriage), helps thaw the ice between them. Nevertheless, business disagreements about how to manage the bar, and their dire financial predicament, often halts any kind of interpersonal healing as soon as it begins. Unexpected revelations continue to unravel this tenuous triangle, even as their conflict causes larger ripples within the community.

Scummy real estate developer Nelson Herrera (Luis Bordonada) is perpetually on their heels, looking to buy out the sisters’ building in his effort to “revitalize” (a nicer word for gentrify) the neighbourhood and displace locals in order to attract more upscale denizens. In order to fend off Nelson, the sisters are forced to make difficult decisions – such as raising rent, renovating the bar, and even painting over a beloved community mural with a beer ad. These moves draw the ire of local activist group Vigilantes, a collective of anti-gentrification radicals dedicated to preserving the neighborhood’s heritage and character and from “colonizers” and change.

This uniquely positions Emma and Lyn as both natives (part of a family that’s lived there for generations, willing to defy Nelson) and outsiders (returning “whitinas” who’ve betrayed their home and culture). While Nelson’s political and legal attacks decimate their business, the Vigilantes’ protests and online shaming destroy the bar’s reputation in the eyes of the locals. And therein lies the show’s sly look at the dark side of tunnel-visioned social justice warriors. While season one portrayed Vigilantes as a disruptive force for good, this season casts them as well-intentioned antagonists, misdirected by naive rage and an unwillingness to compromise.

This issue of policing authenticity is a prevalent theme in season two. Besides the sisters’ having their heritage questioned by the Vigilantes, Emma is also relentlessly questioned about her sexuality. Inherently private because of prior instances of homophobia – now even Emma’s new group of LGBTQ friends gatekeep her gay identity because of her rejection of labels, her fluid sexual orientation, and her desire for discretion. Of course, they are also partially right to sense a hint of shame that lingers because of her mother. Both Emma and Lyn walk a minefield of duality and identity politics in their personal and professional existence.

Somehow, the sisters’ personal sacrifices and tireless efforts to rescue their mother’s bar (a recognized safe space for queer customers) and apartment building (which is the last bastion of affordable housing for working class Mexican-Americans in the neighbourhood) backfires at every turn. Even Lyn’s idea to support local Latinx musicians and bands at the venue angers Vigilantes when the acts begin to attract white hipsters. Both sides are doing their best in the face of rigged and racist systems, and it’s a complicated dynamic that’s as potently examined as the myriad of emotional hang-ups that follow Emma and Lyn’s family and love lives.

The embodiment of this nuanced tug-of-war is Mari (Chelsea Rendon), a minor character from season one who shines in her expanded role in season two. She’s introduced as one of Vigilantes’ more radicalized activists, a sharp mind and hard worker who toils at three jobs in order to take care of her ailing father. But after a sextape between her and the leader of Vigilantes’ is posted online without her consent, Mari is exiled by her father and left homeless. She is then taken in by Emma, who more than understands Mari’s unfortunate predicament, and helps her work through the pain of being betrayed sexually and familially.

An unlikely bond is forged between the prudent and tightly-wound Emma and the firecracker idealogue, which tests Mari’s loyalty to Vigilantes’ cause. Adding to the tension, Mari’s married brother Johnny is engaging in an affair with Emma’s sister Lyn. Johnny’s pregnant wife was devastated to discover the affair in season one, and this season does well to cover the ugly fallout. The main reason why season two feels so much richer is it’s expanded 10 episode order, allowing Vida to follow-up on the aforementioned consequences of season one, as well as traverse new sides to established themes, and introduce instantly memorable new characters.

Of the fresh faces, the most prominent is Nico (Roberta Colindrez, delivering a fully lived-in, laid-back performance), a grounded and talented bartender Emma meets at a wedding, and then hires to help at the bar. While Nico’s competence and connections swiftly produce great results for their business, there is a palpable chemistry between Nico and Emma that extends beyond work. Likewise Baco (Raúl Castillo), a contractor who rubs Emma the wrong way due his criminal record, is another welcome addition – buoyed by a quietly charismatic performance and the character’s role as a significant catalyst for Emma’s development later on.

Thanks to it’s all-Latinx writers room and all-woman directing team, Vida’s riveting navigation through thorny issues never once hits a false note tonally, thematically or visually. Even it’s many graphic sex scenes are rooted in character, and tastefully shot from the female gaze. Unlike other shows that claim representation without actually delivering substance, Vida’s diverse sexual, cultural and racial lenses are all thoughtfully explored – even when those perspectives are in bitter opposition. Elevated by great acting, vibrant Spanglish dialogue, and a fantastic Latin soundtrack, Vida is already a contender for the best show of 2019.

Rating: 9.5/10

Vida season one and two are available on Starz.