Vida, Starz's half-hour dramedy about estranged sisters who return to East L.A. following the death of their mother, is many things. It's a show about family. It's a show about differing experiences within the Latinx community. It's a show about generational bias. It's a show about gentrification, not to mention gentefication. It's a show about finding out who you are and where you belong. Vida is all of that, and yet what the series quickly became known for after its six-episode first season was one thing: sex.
The show's portrayal of authentic, and quite graphic, sex — specifically queer, Latinx sex — is groundbreaking and does exactly what creator Tanya Saracho said her goal was for the series: to normalize brown queerness. And while the sex in Vida is often political, it is never gratuitous or contrived. Instead, the series effortlessly flows in and out of sexual encounters as though they were any other scene — because another thing Vida does better, perhaps, than any other show right now is embrace sex as another layer in storytelling.
"I noticed a lot in Season 1, people always wanted to talk about the sex scenes and there was obviously, for us as actors, challenges [with them]," Mishel Prada, who plays the business-focused older sister Emma Hernandez, told TV Guide at the Television Critics Association winter press tour in February. "But when you really look at it, the sex scenes are less about revealing skin and more about revealing intimacy and revealing their points of view and their issues."
While these intimate encounters are used to further character development, unraveling dynamics that go unspoken in life but are exposed through these physical acts, Vida is incredibly efficient with its sex scenes. When there's a sexual interaction that doesn't further the story, it goes unseen, such as Emma and her love interest Cruz's (Maria-Elena Laas) hotly anticipated hook-up in the season finale. But when the sex serves a purpose beyond titillation, Saracho and the show's (nearly entirely female) team of directors revel in them, never rushing through a single moment and shooting the scenes in a way that's clear that sex isn't something to skirt around, but something to be embraced as a healthy and normal part of life — and one in which a person's physical and emotional needs intersect in interesting and often contradictory ways.
In the show's most discussed scene, which kicks off the third episode, Emma's queer identity, which was previously left ambiguous (albeit strongly hinted it), is officially confirmed. In a steamy scene, Emma dominates a non-binary partner (played by queer writer Michelle Badillo), having them suck her toes before shoving them to the floor and mounting their face. Afterwards, Emma, a top in and out of the bedroom, coldly gets dressed and leaves, having lowered her guard just enough for the physical pleasure and release of sex, but unable to even entertain allowing any emotional intimacy to occur before, during or after the act. Without Emma uttering a word, this scene reveals everything you need to know about how she navigates the world and the distance she puts between herself and other people. It provides viewers with an intimate glimpse into Emma's truest self, and not just the facade she works to project as the unwaveringly stoic voice of reason.
Though far more emotionally open than Emma, which isn't saying a lot, her younger sister, Lyn (Melissa Barrera), suffers from a similar dilemma in which sex is a source of power and pleasure in her life, but real intimacy remains absent. While Lyn can go through the motions of intimacy, even fooling those like her on-again, off-again boyfriend Johnny (Carlos Miranda) into thinking they have something real, Lyn's nearly as guarded as Emma; she's just better at negotiating her roles in relationships and adapting to the parts people expect her to play.
Sex is like a salve, a balm, a medicine, a distraction. Sex becomes something to these two sisters.
Once again, Saracho reveals Lyn's camouflaged inner life through sex. After we already witnessed Lyn manipulate Johnny into having sex with her outside of her mother's wake in the series premiere (while his pregnant fiancée remained inside), the show's second episode finds Lyn with a man she can't as easily control. Lyn goes to meet her (white) boyfriend Juniper (Jackson Davis) at the luxury hotel he's staying at, thinking she's going to spend the night with him before he returns to the home they share. However, immediately after she eats and fingers his ass, a still nude Juniper breaks things off. In most any other show, this scenario — Lyn getting dumped days after her mother's death and consequently is rendered both broke and homeless — would find Lyn in the position of powerlessness, but Saracho takes this opportunity to demonstrate Lyn's resilience and unwavering faith in herself above all else.
"You take away his importance by showing him nude and limp and natural," Saracho said of her approach to the scene. "By showing her fully clothed and him naked ... it shifts the power dynamic. Yes, she's getting broken up with. Yes, he's asking for her credit cards. But she's still in power. And she leaves there upset but empowered."
Lyn and Emma may operate in opposite ways, but the pair are like "yin and yang," Melissa Barrera explained, noting that they are both mirrors of their mother; each sister just reflects back a different image: Emma of the logical, emotionally closed hardass and Lyn of the freewheeling, relationship-hopping party girl. But at the end of the day, both of these personas are only reactions to what neither woman is ready to face: the lasting damage their mother, Vidalia (Rose Portillo), caused in them. And for the Hernandez sisters, sex is one of the few aspects of their lives that they fully understand and have control over, so it makes sense that they turn to it when they are feeling particularly lost or in need of an escape.
"Sex is like a salve, a balm, a medicine, a distraction. Sex becomes something to these two sisters," Saracho said.
"These girls have agency over their bodies and their sex lives. And I think in lots of ways millennial women do. It's the other stuff that's a mess," the showrunner continued. "They know how to get off, they know what they need. The mess is the interpersonal stuff."
While sex has become a crutch in many ways for both Lyn and Emma, that doesn't mean that the sisters are even aware of the ways they rely on it for temporary healing. After the loss of their mother, whom both Emma and Lyn had a complicated relationship with, the women find their lives uprooted; they're forced to confront the aspects of their pasts they've spent their whole lives running from as well as the aspects of themselves they'd rather ignore. The first season focuses largely on Emma's struggles with this, as her resentment of her mother's homophobic treatment of Emma growing up now clashes against the realization that Vidalia was not only gay, but married to a woman, Eddy (Ser Anzoategui), and had turned the family bar into a safe space for the local queer community. And while Vida's first season didn't touch much on the damage Vidalia caused Lyn, Saracho teased that the mother "did a number on [her]" as well, something which will be fully explored in the upcoming second season.
With so many conflicting emotions toward their mother mixed in with their powerful grief — and both Emma and Lyn do grieve Vidalia in their own ways — the women find themselves relying on sex throughout the series as a way to work through (or sometimes combat) these powerful emotions they're experiencing, even when these responses may seem inappropriate or antithetical.
"I think they don't know how they're being affected," Saracho said of the sisters' grieving process throughout the first season. "Lyn having sex at the velorio is not something conscious. ... No. It's her way of grieving her mother and she doesn't even know. It's like there's a holistic way that these girls are acting, but not in a positive way. It's like their souls are acting out."
For Emma, the complicated relationship between grief and sex breaks down completely at the end of Episode 5. After fighting with Eddy, who demands to know why Emma hasn't publicly shed any tears for Vidalia, Emma falls back on old habits — masturbation — in order to feel something, only this time it doesn't work. Unable to find release through orgasm, Emma is no longer able to maintain her carefully curated control and finally breaks down sobbing.
"I think [the question of why she isn't crying or upset is] something that Emma thinks about, even though she has closed herself off. Like, why are those emotions not accessible there? And they never have been because very early on she had to [close herself off]," Saracho said of Emma's state of mind. "Her mom sent her away. She had a really hard grandma who raised her. So everything closed up. That painful masturbation — because it seemed painful, like she was trying to hurt herself to feel something, like [it was] some sort of challenge to feel something by Eddy downstairs. Sex is the only way she feels for a slight moment. That orgasm is a slight opening and then it closes back up. So it is the only physical vocabulary she has."
"It's the desire to feel and to connect," added Prada. "And Emma, especially during that first season, is so used to not doing that because that's her safe place. And I think at the beginning and end of Episode 5, you see that it's not working anymore. The old tricks aren't working. And then by the time it ends, she has to release because she's aggressively trying to grasp for it. And Lyn is letting go downstairs with the family and is very vulnerable, which I think is a very powerful and beautiful thing. It's like, I don't know how and Emma doesn't know how either but she's not going to admit it."
While all of this is running through Emma's head, none of this is spoken onscreen or even in conversations between the actors and creator behind the scenes. Barrera and Prada both said that they never need to speak with Saracho or the writers about what each sex scene is supposed to convey about their characters because "we just know," per Barrera.
"Our show is so well written and we have such amazing writers and Tanya is so good that there's not a lot of explaining that needs to be done. And as actors, when you have writing that is so good, you just live it," she continued. "We know where she's taking us and we know what she needs from us. ... We are so in synergy, all of us, telling this story that we don't need to talk about things. Also, a lot of the things that the audience gets from these scenes is unspoken. And that's also the beauty of it because each person gets what they interpret. The universality of silence and of these charged moments in intimacy is that each person interprets it depending on what they're going through in life."
"You tell your story so that people can hear theirs," added Prada.
And in Vida's Season 1 finale, both Lyn and Emma take their first major steps toward moving their own stories forward and attempting to heal their traumas by letting go of certain aspects of the past, in Lyn's case ending her unhealthy relationship Johnny, and facing others head-on, which for Emma means admitting how much her home does mean to her, despite the negative memories associated. Together, the sisters decide to stay in Los Angeles to fix up their mother's bar, turning it into something they can be proud of while trying to rewrite the painful memories with new ones.
As part of this healing process, Emma and Lyn will re-prioritize what's important in their lives in the second season, which will consequently shift their relationships with sex and intimacy, hopefully for the better. For Lyn, that means attempting to focus solely on the bar instead of romantic relationships, while Emma tries to allow more room for intimacy in her life, including developing a friendship with the new bartender Nico (Roberta Colindrez). Of course, Emma and Lyn aren't going to turn celibate in the nine days that pass between the first and second season, so you can still expect a lot of sex scenes, and ones which will reflect the sisters' evolving attitudes toward themselves and others.
We don't want to be a sex gimmick show.
"You get to see different kinds of relationships for both of them," Barrera teased. "Less toxic and more them trying to be normal human beings with regular relationships. There's new characters coming in that kind of reveal different layers of the sisters. But there's a lot of sex also in Season 2. Not gonna lie. Different kinds of sex."
"Different ways that sex is being manifested and used," added Prada. "There are times, obviously, when it's tender and it's needy and times when it's just a release or times when it's just not dealing with issues and an escape. You can see all those layers."
And after all the praise for the graphic, in-your-face sex of Season 1, Saracho and her writers were mindful when crafting the new sex scenes that they remain authentic and story-driven at all times in the show's anticipated sophomore run. "I was so worried when we started second season, like, 'How am I gonna top that?'" Saracho recalled. "It took me a little while, but we just follow the truth of everybody so that nothing is gratuitous. I think there are some shocking things, but [they're shocking] because they're part of the story. And then there's some stuff that's just hopefully ... beautiful, queer sex that's shot really gorgeous. But we don't want to be a sex gimmick show."
"I think that's what's so special about our show," Barrera said. "That it's very bold in its storytelling and we're not afraid to go places, and you see messy sex and you see good sex and you see bad sex. But it always reveals more of the characters. And it's part of the storytelling. It's not just sex for sex's sake or for people to be like, 'ooh, ta-ta's.' It's not that at all, which is why I think we're both doing it, because otherwise I think we wouldn't be."
This week, TV Guide is exploring television's relationship with sex, puberty, and everything in between. As part of Sex Ed Week, we're examining the many life lessons we learned from Degrassi, the complicated and contradictory rules of TV censorship, why Sex Education filters raunchy teenage life through a candy-coated aesthetic, and more. You can check out all our Sex Ed Week content here.
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