‘Vida’: Two Sisters’ Home Economics
Posted May 3, 2018 9:21 p.m. EDT
Visiting Los Angeles after her mother’s sudden death, Lyn (Melissa Barrera) strikes up a conversation with a stylish young businessman from out of town. She tells him that she’s staying on the Eastside. “Eastside, like Silver Lake?” he asks.
No, not Eastside like Silver Lake. But I can see why he might guess that, if he watches enough TV. Silver Lake and its upscale Eastside environs have become the hipster face of LA in recent indie-ish series like “Transparent,” “Casual” and “Love.”
Lyn, on the other hand, is staying in Boyle Heights, a Hispanic Eastside neighborhood that’s being pushed to become like Silver Lake — more expensive, more Anglo — by gentrifiers and investors. It’s the sort of place where locals eat at a long-standing birria (stewed goat) restaurant while a white woman shoots a video on the sidewalk about “discovering” it.
But “Vida,” beginning Sunday on Starz, gets to that big story through a smaller one, which is where it excels. Lyn, a free-spirited serial entrepreneur (currently creating a line of “Aztec-inspired lotions”), and her white-collar sister, Emma (Mishel Prada), hurry home to settle the affairs of their late mother, for whom the series is named.
Job No. 1 is dealing with the neighborhood bar their mother owned, which leads to some surprises. First, it’s deeply in debt. Second, they learn, Vida was running it with the bartender, Eddy (Ser Anzoategui), who was also her wife.
The setup recalls the premise of series from “Six Feet Under” to “One Mississippi” to “Queen Sugar”: adult children settling family business after the death of a parent, in the process reopening the family’s emotional books, too, reassessing old debts.
“Vida,” created by Tanya Saracho, keeps its focus tight, on a few relationships: between the guarded Emma and the reckless Lyn; between both of these prodigal daughters and Eddy, plain-spoken and fiercely loyal to the bar and Vida’s legacy; and between each of them and the idea of home.
This last issue is emotional but also practical. Like so many things in American cities, it comes down to real estate. The whiff of the bar’s distress attracts speculators ready to buy. That in turn puts Emma and Lyn in the sights of Marisol (Chelsea Rendon), an old classmate turned firebrand.
For Marisol, the sisters represent “gente-fication,” a Spanish-English portmanteau for people gentrifying their own home. (See also “chipster,” for Chicano hipster, and “gentrifence,” for the horizontal fences erected around renovated houses. There’s a whole glossary of disruption in “Vida.”)
The local politics plot of “Vida” suffers from on-the-nose Gentrification 101 exposition and speechifying. But the pull of home and memory is more complicated for the two sisters. Lyn realizes how much the neighborhood has changed, for instance, when she sees the bed in her old room is next to the window now. “They’re not worried about drive-bys anymore,” she says.
Emma has a steely brusqueness that reads to her old neighbors as superior — and maybe it is, a little — but it’s as much about self-defense as anything. She still feels connected to Boyle Heights in a way that she can’t shake, despite her painful memories. A subplot for Lyn, involving a fling with an old flame who’s now engaged, is less successful.
Anzoategui is especially good as the grieving Eddy, who’s separated from Lyn and Emma by both personal history and class. She knew a different Vida than they did, and she struggles to understand how the daughters can view her business as a matter of dollars and cents.
“Vida” is shot through with affection for its setting and characters. But it’s the unsentimental, difficult kind of love that an adult child has for a parent with whom she’s had a rough history. It sees the imperfections rather than looking past them.
One last word must be said for “Vida.” It’s short: six episodes, a half-hour each. (So is “Sweetbitter,” its Sunday night companion series on Starz.) In an era of TV gigantism, when ambitious shows distend their episodes like a Yes double album, this small thing is no small thing.
The brevity works well for a series that’s all about intimate, minute observations, emphasized by the roving hand-held camera, which creates the sensation of pulling up elbow-to-elbow with the characters.
At typical drama length, this series might have been bogged down with plot digressions and expansions. As it is, it sometimes slips into melodrama, but the lapses pass quickly. Life may be too short, but “Vida” is just right.