Gentrification robs areas of their personality. Areas all around Los Angeles are being built up to be more modern, trendy and, for lack of a better word, hipster. This forces resident’s out of their community and homes. The issue of gentrification permeates the DNA of Starz’s excellent new half hour drama.
“Vida” opens with Mari (Chelsea Rendon), a young resident of Boyle Heights, giving an impassioned call to arms on YouTube to protect her area from gentrification. Immediately after, we watch an older woman suddenly collapse. This sets the stage for an incredible pilot that promises a lot of rich potential for character exploration.
The woman that dies in those opening moments is Vidalia, also known as Vida. This prompts her two very different daughters – Emma (Mishel Prada) and Lyn (Melissa Barrera) – to return home to Boyle Heights. Emma lives a successful life in Chicago and finds the demons she left in Boyle Heights are far from buried. Meanwhile, Lyn feels much more emotional regarding her mother’s death, possibly because she’s running from her life in SF where she’s just skating by. The two girls enter their childhood home only to find Eddy (Ser Anzoategui), Vida’s “roommate.” Confused as to why their older mother had a roommate, it is soon revealed that Eddy and Vida had been married for the past two years. Complicating the situation more, Vida dictates her bar to be split evenly between the three of them.
Each of the reactions as to what to do with the bar unearths plenty of interesting drama that’s more than meets the eye. Emma wants to sell to a developer and get out of town. Lyn seems more concerned about the people that will be displaced, including many undocumented immigrants. Eddy won’t sell, it’s not what Vida wanted. All three actors craft excellent, well-defined characters that have a palpable chemistry. The sisters instantly communicate decades worth of history in their first stilted interactions. Anzoategui makes Eddy a volatile, grieving wild card. Eddy emerges as the beating heart of the soul, and Anzoategui becomes the breakout.
Though the show is focused squarely on the Latinx community, “Vida” explores the diversity that occurs within the community. From a socioeconomic standpoint, we get very different points of view from the successful Emma, social climbing Lyn, neighborhood stalwart Eddy and impassioned youth Mari. These differences further complicate how each person views and prioritizes gentrification in different ways. The casting of Anzoategui, a non-binary actor, further accentuates how “Vida” views and uses diversity in interesting ways that enhance the story. As the girls learn of their Mom’s secret lesbian love affair with Eddy, their responses are authentic and raw. The emotions and history of this family run deep and leave plenty of room for an exciting inaugural season.
The inclusivity and subject matter aren’t the only elements that set “Vida” apart. The show looks vibrant and cinematic thanks to cinematographer Carmen Cabana. She finds beauty in the non-gentrified neighborhood, marveling at the handmaid murals, non-renovated bar and even the local taqueria. There’s loving detail to Vida and Eddy’s home, including a breathtaking rooftop view.
The look also allows for smarter and more interesting ways to visually present the central conflict around gentrification. A local white blogger visits a neighborhood hole-in-the-wall with a camera, trying to highlight a hot, new spot to eat. Her put together look comes off more as a facade, which further sets her apart from the historic, shabby establishment. It directly clashes with Mari, who physically accosts the blogger. Mari does everything she can to model herself after her community. In many ways, she dresses to add on harder edges than she actually possesses. Emma’s sleek black dress and perfectly coiffed hair set her apart even from her community. Even Lyn’s luscious hair and dress paint her as bougie enough to be an outcast from the town.
Showrunner Tanya Saracho has truly created a unique television experience. She knows how to create meaningful and palpable conflict through strong storytelling and interesting visual language. The six-episode season of “Vida” cannot be enough. It will be exciting to hopefully see this rich world continue to share its stories for years to come.