CHICAGO — Were it not for the coronavirus, “Vida” showrunner Tanya Saracho would have been in Chicago last week — a city she still considers home — to screen episodes from the third and final season of her Starz drama, in person, ahead of its premiere on the cable network Sunday.
“We were going to bring the cast, it was going to be amazing,” she said. Instead, Saracho has been quarantining at home in Los Angeles, where she moved seven years ago.
A longtime Chicago playwright, she relocated to pursue work in television; it’s been a remarkable career so far, with credits that include HBO’s “Looking” and ABC’s “How to Get Away With Murder.”
On “Vida,” she is the creator and showrunner, which has launched her to the rarified level of executive producer. She’s hoping to build on that even further.
But first, “Vida’s” final season. The half-hour drama centers on two sisters who take over their mother’s bar in East LA after she dies, and it’s a wonderfully complicated portrait of what it means to be young, queer, Mexican American and forever baffled by life. At its heart, the show has always been about the bond between two sisters who come to realize they are their best selves when they are together.
I caught up with Saracho to talk about how she’s spending her time during the stay-at-home order and what she has planned next.
Q: This is “Vida’s” final season, how did that decision happen?
A: I mean (long pause) I don’t have the how’s and why’s because I don’t really understand. I got a really kind, gentle phone call from the second-in-command at Starz at the time, who’s now at Apple, and he was like, “I have to tell you, we are picking you up for a third season but we’re only giving you six episodes and you have to make a plan for this to be your last season.” Basically the numbers weren’t there. I had so many plans — but then again, thank you for the six?
I mean, I was in a funk. And then I was in denial because I was like, “You know what? I can change their minds if I produce six masterpieces!” And then I got angry. I really went through all the phases of grief.
Q: Writing is such a solitary pursuit, so how has the quarantine been for you so far?
A: I’m doing OK — (coughs) sorry, that’s not corona — I’ve been meditating and feeding these squirrels, I’m obsessed with these squirrels in my backyard. So now everything in my life is about these squirrels.
For the first three weeks I felt so inadequate and guilty: The seed for a show or a play always starts when you’re alone, crafting it by yourself. So why the … am I not writing? Why am I not creating? Why am I barren?
And other people are like, “Yeah, I’m gonna write!” My friend just did a 48 hour film project. And it has been so awkward to be like: I have nothing, I’m at zero.
I don’t understand it. I close my eyes and it’s dark — and it’s never dark, there’s always something — but nothing since March 13. So I’ve been having anxiety about that. I’ve been doing a lot of transcendental meditation, which is like “observe and accept,” and now I’m accepting it. But that’s still not yielding anything creative.
Q: You’re not alone in that, I’ve seen so many people express similar thoughts on social media. I think the uncertainty and fear can be paralyzing.
A: That’s what I feel like, creatively paralyzed. It’s nice to hear that other people are feeling this because I’m surrounded by a bunch of people who are still working in writers rooms, who are straight up writing episodes. A friend of mine just got staffed on a new show. These are mostly streaming shows. I think what’s happening is, showrunners are banking scripts so that they’re ready when work starts again. Or (networks and streaming services) are buying stuff, just to stock up.
Although I don’t know how that’s going to work because space is at a premium here; when we all go back, there’s going to be a bottleneck of people who need soundstage space and crews.
Q: Because you’re now the creator and showrunner of a TV series, are you at a different level in your career? Do you go back to being hired in someone else’s writers room — or do you think about your next step differently?
A: I might work on a friend’s show if they need me, or somebody that I’m close with. But for the most part I want a slate — meaning, I want my YA drama, my historical drama, my slate of shows. I won’t necessarily write all of them, but I’ll produce. There’s not a Latina with a company, so I’m trying to form one — like an Ava DuVernay, like a Lena Waithe — but for that to happen, we have to be back at work.
There was no design for myself before “Vida.” I was going from job to job because there was always a plan to go back to Chicago — I didn’t let go of my apartment in Chicago until I had been in L.A. for three years.
Q: You’ve been developing a TV show set in Chicago called “Brujas,” about four Afro-Caribbean and Latinx women. I know the phrase “in development” doesn’t always mean a show will get made — where do things stand with that?
A: I don’t know, right now it’s paused.
“Vida” was my vida (life): I finished work on it March 12, that’s when I delivered the last mix of the episodes. Then March 13 I went into quarantine. And now this industry is at a standstill. Of course I have ideas and I want “Brujas” to come back so I can come home. My link to Chicago is strong. But the stars have to align and the COVID has to dissipate.
Q: When you start writing again, do you think you’ll want to incorporate anything about the coronavirus experience into your work or will you avoid it altogether?
A: That’s such a big question that a lot of writers have been asking. I was watching an episode of “Vida” the other day and everybody kisses to say hello at this big warehouse party and I was like, “I will never be able to do that again as a showrunner.” Am I ever going to be able to do sex scenes again? This is a new world order.
This is Month 1 of this thing, it’s early days, and I have a feeling we’re going to be living it very fully for two years. But I’m thinking about it. The other day I went to CVS — I hadn’t left my house since March 18 — and I counted 17 people who were drinking iced coffee, just walking around in their shorts and not wearing masks and I was like, “It’s because of you that it’s going to take longer for us to get through this.”
Hopefully when you watch “Vida” it won’t feel dated when you see the closeness and people touching each other.
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