On March 12, after months of intensive work, Tanya Saracho delivered the final cut of “Vida” to Starz. On March 13, she began self-quarantining. “After all that activity, I didn’t know what to do with the silence!” she laughs now, several weeks later. What made that first stretch of social distancing even stranger for Saracho, though, was that it was also the same week that everyone else learned that this third season of “Vida” would also be its last.
“I had already gone through all the stages [of grief], so I was in this numb stage — and then I saw it in black and white and it hit me like a ton of bricks,” says Saracho of watching the announcement ripple throughout the internet. “That day was really strange. Usually on a day like that, I would’ve vented with friends and family. But no, my cats were the ones who got it.”
When Starz first told Saracho that she would have just six episodes to wrap up the series, she was stunned. “I really couldn’t process it for a bit,” she says.
After four years running the show, Saracho was crushed to learn that she both had to speed up the ending and shut down a production that has also functioned as an incubator of underserved Latinx talent. But looking back at everyone who’s grown through the show, Saracho is thrilled to see people who got their shot on “Vida” get bigger spotlights. Cinematographer Carmen Cabanda, for example, led her first DP department on “Vida” before moving on to do the same on Hulu’s “High Fidelity.” Melissa Barrera, set to lead Lin Manuel-Miranda and John Chu’s “In The Heights,” first got her visa thanks to landing the role on “Vida.”
“I’m going to miss getting to go to work with people who feel like family — and the fact that I won’t be able to come back every season and open the doors and give jobs,” Saracho says. “That was almost as fulfilling as artistically getting to do the show. How we made it was as important.”
Still, she walked into her writers’ room and wrote on the whiteboard: “Six masterpieces.” With less time and fewer resources at their disposal, Saracho knew it was a tall order, but also felt like they owed it to themselves and the audience to get it right.
“We could’ve done three seasons with the stuff we had, but then we whittled it down, and it was really easy to write the six episodes — and joyous, almost,” she says. “Every moment was economized and precious.”
Starz allowed them some wiggle room with the episodes’ lengths; some run about 40 minutes, and the finale is nearly a full hour long, the better to fit in everything they wanted to — including a “queerceñera” that Saracho had been dreaming of doing since day one. “We’re gender-bending such a traditional female ritual in Mexican culture,” she says, “and I don’t know anything more ‘Vida’ than that.”
“We were all feeling a sense of urgency that there were stories we could not leave the season without telling,” Saracho continues.
In particular, they wanted to do right by Season 2’s giant revelation that Emma (Mishel Prada) and Lyn’s (Barrera) father is, despite what their mother told them, still alive.
“It’s the most bombastic thing we’ve ever thrown at ‘Vida,’” Saracho says. “We couldn’t just ignore it. Plus, I’d been thinking about the dad since the first episode. The lack of mentioning it [ever since] was on purpose, so that it would be a big surprise that he was alive.”
Another element of Season 2 that Saracho wanted to explore in greater depth is the burgeoning relationship between Emma and enigmatic bartender Nico (Roberta Colindrez), who almost seems too good to be true — for a reason.
“You’re going to get to know more about Nico,” Saracho promises. “But I wanted to establish her as a masc of center dream girl who’s a stud. Maybe — maybe — the last time we saw that was Shane in ‘The L Word.’ But Nico knows herself and has her s— together. That’s what you saw in Season 2, and hopefully you fell in love with her. But now we peel back those layers.”
One of this final season’s most pressing plots, however, belongs to fierce anti-gentrification advocate Mari (Chelsea Rendon), who is spurred into broader activism when she films ICE brutally arresting a father in front of his crying child. “It [has been] threaded in the story, but we’d never made it a storyline,” Saracho acknowledges. “So this season we were like, we cannot leave without taking the temperature of who we are when it comes to that. It’s [set in] Boyle Heights, and we’re Latinx!”
The ICE raid Mari witnesses was based on a real video that recently went viral — one that, Saracho points out, depicts an even more brutal arrest than the show even does. “There was a six-month old in the backseat, and ICE still broke the window, I didn’t want to do that to a baby and parents. But [the show’s version] is still true to life. It’s been happening, and it’s ramped up.”
Getting everything they wanted to address in the series before its final closing credits was challenging, but Saracho is happy with where it lands. (She even promises that “poor suffering Eddy,” played by Ser Anzoategui, ends up “in a good place.”) Even if they weren’t expecting to leave “Vida” this soon, she says, they always had Emma and Lyn as their centers of gravity, and could at least do right by them.
“‘Vida’ was always a love story of the two sisters,” as Saracho puts it. “That was our North Star, and I think we followed it right.”
The third and final season of “Vida” premieres Sunday, April 26 at 9 p.m. on Starz.