Throughout its short-lived three seasons, the half-hour comedic melodrama “Vida” has covered a lot of ground. Opening with a mother’s death bringing together two sisters when they inherit a bar in their gentrifying East L.A. neighborhood, the series charted Mexican-American identity, immigration, gentrification, queerness, and female sexuality, and concludes with the creation of the hottest POC queer bar in Boyle Heights.
From its humble beginnings as a six-episode lark for Starz, the mere existence of “Vida” was a fairy tale come true. The show is the brain-and-love-child of Tanya Saracho, a queer Chicana playwright from Chicago who has worked extensively with the city’s famed Steppenwolf Theater Company. When “Vida” premiered in 2018, there were very few TV shows headed by a woman showrunner, and even fewer by a woman of color. The joy and enthusiasm evoked by such a milestone carried through the terrific first two seasons, which charmed with sharp storytelling, funny dialogue, and a rich tapestry of refreshing women and queer characters.
But “Vida” ended abruptly, more like a novella than a telenovela. With Starz giving Saracho only six episodes for her third and final season — the second was a more robust 12 episodes — the show strains against the confines of its all-too-brief finale. The third season, while enjoyable, feels like a bookend on a story that wasn’t ready to end. Even though it ends with a slightly forced button, “Vida” is never buttoned up.
“Vida” follows two sisters who, following their mother Vidalia’s death, must suddenly move home, leaving behind very different lives in other cities. Type-A career woman Emma (Mishel Prada) and directionless, freewheeling Lyn (Melissa Barrera) clash in ways both amusing and infuriating as they negotiate long-dormant family dynamics. Emma is no-nonsense and emotionally protected, her only stress reliever lots of kinky sex with all genders. Lyn is similarly empowered, but she gets lost in the search for approval from the men in her life. In addition to the highly sought-after building, they also inherit an old school butch bartender named Eddie (Ser Anzoategui), their mother’s widow who they never knew about.
The first two seasons track the sisters’ experience as newly minted landlords in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, mining comedy from the friction while never shying away from more unsettling realities. As landlords and business owners, Emma and Lyn are often accused of being “coconuts” (brown on the outside, white on the inside), and are targeted by a local activist group called Los Vigilantes. This window into the other side of the changing landscape comes through plucky and righteous Mari (Chelsea Rendon), little sister to Lyn’s I-just-can’t-quit-you flame, Johnny (Carlos Miranda). Season 2 also introduces a worthy love interest for Emma in the form of Nico (Roberta Colindrez), a motorcycle-driving bartender who waltzes into the show like a Latinx Shane from “The L Word.”
Having built up this ripe romance with slow simmer, Season 3 unleashes the steamy sex scenes “Vida” has always delivered, this time replete with googly eyes and pancake-making. It’s hard to fault Saracho for delivering the brown queer fantasy of her (and so many others’) dreams, but she indulges the Emma/Nico romance a little too much, getting mired in ex-girlfriend drama and gender politics. This subplot shouldn’t carry equal weight as the sisters’ struggle to save the family business, which is the heart and soul of the show.
When the neighborhood bruja confirms that their supposed-dead father is in fact alive, Lyn pursues a relationship with him — one that is obviously doomed from the start. While the sometimes soapy (albeit highbrow) nature of the show practically dictates that a long-lost father wouldn’t stay dormant for long, shoehorning him into this short final season feels rushed and dissatisfying. It’s easy to imagine the many places “Vida” could have gone after his arrival, but without seeing those through, his presence feels like a predictable distraction.
Unlike its first two seasons, which sparkled with an original vision and refreshing perspective, Season 3 of “Vida” collapses under the pressure of representation. By the time the baby drag kings are bickering over pronouns, the mama’s boy asks Lyn to pee on him, and the suave lothario becomes a victim of queer domestic abuse, it’s clear “Vida” couldn’t be all things to all people. While that may sound like a lot, the real tragedy is that Saracho wasn’t given more time and space to wrap up her magic-flecked world, a universe where all those things — the queer, the sex-positive, the brown, the political — could live together with humor and heart.
“Vida” airs new episodes on Starz on Sundays, beginning April 26.