Christmas 2020 is going to be weird. It just is. With COVID back on the rise, for most it's likely be a more distanced, housebound, low-key holiday celebration this year. A bummer for anyone who enjoys the Whole Christmas Experience — the decorations on the lampposts and storefronts, holiday shopping, the whole carolers thing — but it will mean that Christmas-themed programming is going to do a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to getting us into the Christmas spirit. Netflix couldn't have known this when they commissioned Dash & Lily, their teen romance series that drops onto the platform on today, but the good news is that they've delivered a pretty good teen romance and a spectacularly effective Christmas delivery system. Particularly if Christmas in New York City means anything to you at all.
Dash and Lily are a pair of New York City teens who meet — or, rather, "meet" — via a notebook that Lily leaves at a bookstore and Dash finds. Inside, she's left clues and essentially a scavenger hunt for a prospective romantic interest to follow. This kicks off a twist on the long-distance romance, where the characters crisscross New York City, trading the notebook back and forth, getting to know each other through each entry, and, of course, falling for each other in the process. It's like a non-hateful, non-murderous Gone Girl. All of this takes place over the course of a few weeks in December, as NYC is decked out in its holiday best, and everything takes on the heightened air of Christmastime romance. If this sounds super Hallmark-y to you, you're not wrong, and if your tolerance level for sweet, longing teens who seem suspiciously articulate about their emotional states of being is low, you should probably take that as a warning, but the show manages to keep on the good side of cloying as it marches through its eight half-hour episodes.
If you're wondering exactly what kind of vibe to expect here, the series is adapted from the Dash & Lily's Book of Dares novels by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan, who are the authors of Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist. (One particular excursion to an underground downtown club will give you significant Nick and Nora vibes.) Joe Tracz, who was a writer on Netflix's A Series of Unfortunate Events, is the series creator, showrunner, and executive producer, while other notable executive producers include Brad Silberling (director of films like Moonlight Mile and the 2004 Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events), Shawn Levy (director of the Night at the Museum films and Date Night, among others), and Nick Jonas (brother of Joe and Kevin).
So there's Dash (Austin Abrams) and there's Lily (Midori Francis). Dash is sarcastic and cynical, completely immune to the charms of Christmas, and seems to enjoy brooding around the bookstore correcting employees about where they should be shelving Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Lily is a lovelorn misfit who sings in a caroling group with adults and can't understand why all the other girls in her school seem to find it so easy to get boyfriends. Dash lives basically alone in his father's penthouse and pals around with his Two Boots-working best friend Boomer (Dante Brown). Lily lives uptown with her gay older brother Langston (Troy Iwata) and sometimes with their grandfather (James Saito), when he's not in Florida with his girlfriend. She's also very close with her great aunt (Jodi Long), who she calls Mrs. Basil E, after the book.
At the risk of being obnoxious, the show's other major character is New York City, specifically New York City at Christmastime. The brand awareness for this show is off the charts, which gives the whole thing an air of commercialism that could rankle any viewer who isn't, oh, say, estranged from the city due to a pandemic and experiencing increasingly sharp pangs of longing for the streets and shops and landmarks back home. For example: the story kicks off in not just any bookstore but The Strand, the Greenwich Village landmark, and over the course of eight episodes the show traverses numerous landmarks in the city, from Grand Central Station to Macy's to the Christmas lights in Dyker Heights to a curiously unnamed pie shop in Gowanus (guess Four & Twenty Blackbirds didn't pony up the cash for a name drop). The Two Boots in the East Village is essentially to Dash & Lily what Dean & DeLuca was to Felicity, and if that reference means anything to you, you will likely end up being more charmed than off-put by the aggressive location name-dropping.
One area where the show succeeds incredibly well — and in a very NYC-centric way — is in casting bit roles. Performers like Michael Cyril Creighton (High Maintenance), Patrick Vail (Broadway's Oklahoma), Larry Owens (off-Broadway's A Strange Loop), and Dusty Ray Bottoms (RuPaul's Drag Race) all feel as authentically New York as any of the scenes set at McSorley's.
Netflix likely wants this show to have the appeal of its other YA-friendly properties, from To All the Boys I've Loved Before to The Babysitters Club. It's not as transcendently good as the latter, and it probably won't be as big of a sensation as the former, but for audiences who give themselves over to its romanticism, it'll fit nicely on the same bookshelf. There's also more than a little Love, Simon — heterosexually speaking, of course — to the notes Dash and Lily pass back and forth to each other, as well as the central mystery of them not knowing who the other is. Of course, that brings up the biggest snag to the show...
The one problem that Dash & Lily has to work very hard to overcome is a pretty fundamental one: our two romantic leads don't meet each other until nearly the end of the season. The premise of long-distance love blossoming while these two are often steps away from each other is an intriguing one — and likely works like gangbusters in book form — but on screen, it means asking the audience to invest in a chemistry between the two characters that is entirely theoretical. This puts a lot of pressure on the two leads, who are both varying degrees of good-if-not-great. Austin Abrams — who's probably best known for his stint as Ron on The Walking Dead and for playing Ben Stiller's son in the film Brad's Status — has to make the "cynical, floppy haired white teen" thing work, and while he's doing his best to deliver a Chalamet-lite performance, the emphasis is on the "lite." Midori Francis (whose major role previous to this was in the Jacob Tremblay comedy Good Boys) fares better as Lily, whose offbeat, friends-with-adults, awkward vibe isn't exactly breaking new ground, but is nonetheless relatable and charming. Her family relationships with her brother, grandpa, and Mrs. Basil E are often the most compelling aspects of the episodes. Of the two lead characters, Lily's the emotionally resonant one. She's also the one who's as gaga for Christmas as the show needs its audience to be.
The other thing that the socially-distanced romance plot requires is for both Dash and Lily to be occupied with side quests to keep the action going while they haven't met yet. This means the introduction of two romantic rivals in Dash's ex, Sofia (Keana Marie), and Lily's one-time middle school tormentor, Edgar (Glenn McCuen). It's incredibly hard to get worked up about either, since neither ever seems like a credible threat to the eventual romantic payoff for Dash and Lily, considering the show we're watching is called Dash & Lily.
All that said, Dash & Lily boils down to a very simple formula: a charming romance set against the backdrop of Christmas imagery that will have anyone who even slightly longs for the return of the traditional holiday season swooning. This is a hypodermic needle of undiluted Christmas about to be injected into your chest, Pulp Fiction-style. If that's something you need, this is a highly watchable way to get your fix.
The entire first season Dash & Lily drops on Netflix today, November 10th.
Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.
TOPICS: Dash & Lily, Netflix, Austin Abrams, Brad Silberling, Dante Brown, David Levithan, Dusty Ray Bottoms, Glenn McCuen, James Saito, Jodi Long, Joe Tracz, Keana Marie, Larry Owens, Michael Cyril Creighton, Midori Francis, Nick Jonas, Patrick Vail, Rachel Cohn, Shawn Levy, Troy Iwata