The rare drama series to focus on Latino characters — who are female and/or queer, no less — “Vida” only somewhat lives up to the color, richness and excitement maybe promised by its title (the Spanish feminine noun for “life”). Starz certainly deserves a big gracias for disrupting Hollywood’s #SoWhiteMale status with this scrappy half-hour, which showrunner Tanya Saracho has said reflects her mission to introduce “the brown queer perspective” to TV (the show’s writers, directors and actors also identify as Latinx). Sporting vibrant East La La Land locations and piquant touches of magical realism, the first six episodes ultimately unfold like an arthouse-y pastiche of Showtime hits “The L Word” and “Shameless” and Netflix’s Cuban-spiced reboot of “One Day at a Time.” Meaning it’s got to find its own way if it’s going to stick around.
Newcomer (and last-minute cast-member replacement) Mishel Prada hits the ground running as TV’s latest prodigal daughter: Emma Hernandez, a stylish know-it-all whose existence as a 20something corporate whiz in Chicago is upended by her mother Vidalia’s sudden death. Returning to L.A.’s graffiti-streaked Boyle Heights — home to her family’s rundown bar and crumbling apartment building — the high-cheekboned snoot can’t hide her disdain for her humble beginnings, Mexican roots or, for more complicated reasons, the deceased. Key clue: At her mom’s wake, she gives the local mourners a hug-wary look worthy of Louise Linton.
Much like Emmy Rossum’s Fiona of “Shameless” (a longtime hit that follows a white working-class family in Chicago), Emma has plenty of eye rolls and sarcastic swipes for those in her orbit. Her younger sister Lyn (Mexican telenovela star Melissa Barrera), for one, gets by on her hippy-dippy veganism and languorous beauty to attract rich white cads — or ensnare her otherwise engaged love Johnny (Carlos Miranda). Then there’s Eddy (non-binary actor Ser Anzoategui), a tender-hearted woman nonetheless prone to violence, especially when she’s tipsy and crying over her departed love, who happens to be — gasp! — Emma and Lyn’s thought-to-be-straight mom. Can this reluctant makeshift family fend-off predatory developers (a la “Shameless” again, the baddies are out to “gentrify” the neighborhood) and restore Vida’s bar to its former glory? Will Emma conquer her feelings of childhood abandonment and lean in to her — hey, we thought she was straight too! — deep desire for older coffee-house owner Cruz (Marina Elena Laas)?
Life (and premium channel dramedies) is ever-full of surprises, and “Vida” doles out lots of them, many of the salacious variety. One character is furious to learn her latest hook-up secretly shot — and shared — a video of them in the act. Another gets dumped by her boyfriend in bed right after she . . . well, if you remember that famously raunchy episode of “Sex and the City” in which a fling asks Cynthia Nixon to perform a sex act she’s never done before, let’s just say “Vida” ups the ante in one of many impressively frank sex scenes. Alas, Saracho, whose previous credits include “How To Get Away With Murder” and Lifetime’s Latina-driven “Devious Maids,” doesn’t offer much new or surprising about what motivates people who find themselves in such predicaments. The characters’ personal basic troubles and quandaries are simply stretched out and reiterated, and rarely affectingly probed.
For a show that aims to celebrate and shed light on Mexican-American culture, “Vida” (inspired by a short story by Richard Villegas Jr.) also gives short shrift to the conflicts that trouble that world. With gentrification being just a candied word for swapping out the poor for the monied, humanity deserves more than scenes of a sleazy bank manager popping up now and then to threaten the Hernandez sisters with financial ruin. The guy’s drawn as thin as a smug smile. And while earthy Chelsea Rendon stands out as Marisol, a daring activist out to make sure her loved ones aren’t pushed out of their homes by latte lovers, the resistance meetings she attends are laughably unconvincing. Think Jack Lord visiting a hippie den on the original “Hawaii 5-O.”
America’s undocumented immigrants dilemma? Hinted at, but right now, nada.
English-language U.S. television hasn’t served any of us very well when it comes to shows centered on Latinos, who make up the nation’s largest racial or ethnic minority (nearly 60 million people and counting). The hits can be counted on maybe one hand: “The George Lopez Show,” “Ugly Betty,” “Jane the Virgin,” “East Los High,” “Narcos.” The misses — “Resurrection Blvd.,” “Cristela” — muy dreary. PBS’ “American Family” (2002-2004), with Edward James Olmos as the head of more traditional Mexican-American family in L.A., remains the relevant gold standard, but that doesn’t mean “Vida” can’t grow into a show with even more heft while keeping its flash.
There’s plenty of potential — and talent — here. The pilot’s directed by Alonso Ruizpalacios, who won an Ariel (Mexico’s version of the Oscar) in 2015 for his debut flick, the restless-youth drama “Gueros.” Prada’s agreeable confidence inspires comparisons to younger versions of both Wendie Malick and Sonia Braga (who, trivia buffs take note, played the matriarch in “American Family”). Erika Soto as Karla, Lyn’s rightfully annoyed rival in love, is a refreshingly real presence. And Elena Campbell-Martinez charms as a Loteria card-flipping mystic who tries to give Lyn life advice, only to wind up sighing to (unseen) spirits about what a clueless nut the kid is.
Oddly, Vida — the namesake bar Emma, Lyn and stepmother Eddy aim to reboot — isn’t played up as its own inanimate character (the interior actually looks vaguely different episode to episode). Otherwise, director of photography Carmen Cabana and production designer Ruth Ammon lend the show an overall gorgeously authentic, at times LA-noirish, feel. When the sisters sit up on the roof to marvel at downtown L.A.’s twinkling skyline, you’re marveling with them.
And an episode steered by iconic lesbian director Rose Troche (she helmed ‘The L Word’ pilot and the seminal female romance ‘Go Fish’) reveals how bracing ‘Vida’ can be. When flighty Lyn, palpably rudderless and missing her mom, winds up partying in the coldest of Hollywood Hills manses with some pampered brats, she’s quietly giddy. As things turn a little ugly, though, Barrera’s eyes hauntingly express the girl from Boyle Height’s distinct epiphany: This may not be the life.
TV Review: ‘Vida’ Season 1 on Starz
Drama; 6 episodes (6 reviewed); Starz, 8:30 p.m. Sun. May 6. 30 min.