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'Vida' review: Starz drama is a fine newcomer

Melissa Barrera and Mishel Prada star in new

Melissa Barrera and Mishel Prada star in new Starz series "Vida."  Photo Credit: Starz/Erica Parise

THE SERIES "Vida"

WHEN|WHERE Premieres Sunday at 8:30 p.m. on Starz

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Mexican-American sisters Lyn (Melissa Barrera) and Emma (Mishel Prada) return home to East LA to bury their mother, Vidalia — aka Vida — who died unexpectedly. Lyn and Emma have some decisions to make, foremost, about the apartment building and bar/restaurant their mother owned. The decision is fraught for all sorts of reasons, notably that East LA is undergoing gentrification. If this building goes, then what will arise in its place — a luxury apartment building for yuppies, further pushing longtime residents out of the neighborhood? There's growing resistance to this trend, which Lyn and Emma will hear about soon enough. Then there's the mysterious woman Eddy (Ser Anzoategui, who identifies as nonbinary). Eddy has worked at the bar, arranges the funeral and otherwise seems to know an awful lot about Vida. Lyn and Emma will soon find out why: She's been married to Vida for the past two years. This six-episode series was created by Chicago playwright Tanya Saracho.


MY SAY “Vida” begins with Vida's death, which, considering the series' title and the series that follows, may actually be the perfect starting place, or the only one. From life comes death, and from this particular death comes a reckoning: How should the deceased be honored? How should Emma and Lyn honor their mother? An elderly acquaintance of Eddy's tells her that “We all die three times: when we breathe our last breath, when they put us in the ground, and third, when the last person alive who knows us and remembers us says our name for the last time.” Because Lyn, Emma and Eddy will probably be that “last person alive,” the pressure (so to speak) is on. A legacy is at stake, so is a memory — and, in fact, so is someone's life: Vida's.


Part of the poignancy of “Vida,” also part of its universality, revolves on this theme. How someone remembers the dead can be a reflection of their character, identity and constancy, or certainly how these three do. Lyn — immature, deep-feeling, self-loathing — can't get out of the way of her own feelings, or her own compulsions (largely sexual), to see that her mother is a distant reflection of her. Closeted, angry and remote, Emma has drifted as far away from East LA as she can possibly get. (She lives in Chicago.) She wants to forget her past, and that means forgetting her mother to an extent.


That leaves Eddy. As one of three surviving heirs, a decision must be made about the building's future. Buried under debt, the vultures are circling, and further gentrification beckons. Just one word from Eddy — a yes — and the wrecking ball arrives. But that's not what Vida wanted, so Eddy instead chooses to honor Vida in the way she best knows how.


Even before Sunday's launch, “Vida” has attracted considerable attention for its all-Latino cast and crew, for its specificity about life and culture in East LA, for its exploration of gay life. But this terrific new series is especially about something — or someone — anyone can relate to. Life and death are its pivot points. Love — romantic, sexual, maternal — is its subtext. How to honor the memory of a beloved is its theme, or one of them. You can't get much more universal than that.

BOTTOM LINE Fine newcomer with excellent cast, and some universal themes.

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