The truest litmus test for how someone feels about the Christmas season is a simple question: is “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” a sad song about holiday loneliness, or a sweet song about persevering to celebrate life’s everyday joys? The genius of the song is that it equally serves both the glass half full and the glass half empty perspectives, which find themselves battling it out every December for ultimate superiority.
“Dash & Lily,” based on Rachel Cohn and David Levithan’s YA novel “Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares,” hinges on this exact conflict. Unfolding over the platonic ideal of a New York City Christmas week, “Dash & Lily” tells the story of an aggressively sweet teen romance between cynical Dash (Austin Abrams) with optimistic Lily (Midori Francis) as they each try to convince the other why Christmas sucks/rules. It’s never in doubt which side the series ultimately lands on; Lily’s determined buoyancy is reflected and rewarded in all the holiday magic waiting around every corner. But the series nevertheless makes decent efforts to balance out its candied cheer with tinges of the Christmas blues bleeding through, despite Lily’s best efforts to ignore them.
Make no mistake, though: “Dash & Lily” is as much a hopeful fantasy series as it is a charming romantic one (and not just because the series was filmed in New York City in 2019, a year before Christmas in New York City will inevitably look entirely different from crowded years past). Dash and Lily spend most of their romance getting to know each other through a red notebook, which Lily planted in a bookstore along with a set of clues for an intrepid teenage boy to find and decode. Safely flirting from a distance, the two give each other elaborate “dares” to do throughout the city, thus proving their commitment to the experiment and ultimately giving each other tours of their own favorite corners of New York.
Abrams, previously seen on the 180 degree different teen drama “Euphoria,” is appealing enough, if a bit low energy in his role as “the pessimistic one”; Francis, meanwhile, pulls off the tricky feat of making the potentially plastic Lily feel entirely real. In fairness, Francis simply gets richer material to work with; Lily gets both a more layered backstory than Dash and an extended network to play off in her brother (Troy Iwata), grandfather (James Saito) and fabulous godmother “Mrs. Basil E” (Jodi Long). To both their credit, though, Abrams and Francis play Dash and Lily’s burgeoning feelings with enough nuance that it often feels like they’re sharing the screen, even though they almost never do.
Christmas in the city has rarely looked so bright, sparkly, or promising as it does in “Dash & Lily,” which unabashedly shows New York at its most gleaming. Directors Brad Silberling and Fred Savage pump the charm factor through the roof, while Pamela Romanosky’s strong pair of episodes (“Hanukkah” and “Cinderella”) get to lean into the fairy tale “anything could happen” vibe, sending Lily down rabbit holes she never would have entertained before Dash picked up her notebook. New York landmarks like Grand Central Station, The Strand and even the particularly festive neighborhood of Dyker Heights get moments in the spotlight, each bathed in a supernaturally warm glow. “Dash & Lily” loves this version of New York City so much that it politely refuses to acknowledge the presence of any single rat or steaming pile of garbage.
In fact, “Dash & Lily,” with its lonely rich boy hero to its tender as a bruise “weird girl” heroine, feels like a particularly saccharine fanfic come to vibrant life. And lest you read “it’s like fanfic” as a knock against it, fear not: I’m no stranger to or hater on the genre, having furtively enjoyed more than a few “can the lonely rich boy ever notice the shy girl and feel real feelings?!” stories as a young teen myself. There’s a reason why these kinds of magical realism, opposites attract narratives have endured for so long, and why so many teens especially latch onto them so strongly. They present worlds full of possibility, hope for more interesting realities and romances that blossom out of being not just noticed, but truly seen. This is “Dash & Lily”‘s exact lane, and as it happily trots its Christmas sleigh right down it, you’ll either get on board or get of its way.
“Dash & Lily” premieres Tuesday, November 10 on Netflix.