This is a preview of our pop culture newsletter The Daily Beast’s Obsessed, written by senior entertainment reporter Kevin Fallon. To receive the full newsletter in your inbox each week, sign up for it here.
At its core, Dash & Lily is a cruel taunt.
The Christmas-themed romantic-comedy series, which premiered on Netflix this week and has already shot to the top of its most popular list, is set in New York City during the holidays, a postcard from Before Times reminding us of the magical spirit of the city at that time of year.
The corniest thing about me is how much I love the city at Christmas. I just used the word “magical” to describe it and am not even embarrassed. This year we won’t get to experience that magic, thanks to the sewage geyser spewing throughout 2020, and it’s surprising how sad that makes me.
The New York City at Christmastime that is so charmingly and irresistibly romanticized in Dash & Lily is perfect because it is just that: a romanticization. It’s reflecting back the twinkling, crisp, cozy, anything is possible—even falling in love!—unrealistic version that we have in our head. It’s such a pleasure to see that it’s also instantly heartbreaking. From the first frame, Dash & Lily is an explosion of New York holiday nostalgia, and an exercise in delighting in—rather than being tortured with—bitterness over it.
Dash & Lily is based on the young adult book series Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares. Dash (played by Austin Abrams) is a Christmas Scrooge, a natural extension of his otherwise cynical personality. His divorced parents respectively abandon him over the holidays, so he’s crashing in his dad’s bachelor pad alone during school’s winter break.
Lily (played by Midori Francis), on the other hand, lives for Christmas. She’s a crafty, enthusiastic 17-year-old who doesn’t get along with kids her age and has no friends, which is why her family’s all-out embrace of the holidays is such a treat for her. This year, however, her parents have to travel, leaving Lily and her older brother, Langston (Troy Iwata), to their own devices to create their own Christmas experience.
It’s Langston and his new boyfriend’s idea to help Lily out of her shell—and maybe even meet a boy—by crafting a scavenger hunt of dares in a red notebook and leaving it in the Strand bookstore. Dash finds the book and, intrigued, completes the dares.
The two then become flirty pen pals, writing to each other through the book and staging new dares designed to help the other out of their funks: Lily gets Dash to let down his jaded exterior and start to earnestly embrace the sweetness in the world; Dash gets Lily to step out of her comfort zone and discover that she’s worthy of having self-confidence.
It’s all very cute. When I was describing the series to a few friends, they both audibly sighed and their faces relaxed into a serene smile when I merely mentioned the phrase “pen pals.” Both Dash and Lily are so darned adorable it’s no surprise that Netflix audiences are already devouring the series.
Not only does the famous Strand bookstore play a huge role in the show, the characters subway-hop through the entire city and its landmarks, both touristy and local. They go to Think Coffee and Two Boots Pizza in the Village, the Christmas land at Macy’s in Herald Square, to the Broadway costume warehouses at Silvercup Studios in Queens, to get pie in Brooklyn, to go caroling in Washington Square Park, to get drunk at McSorley’s Old Ale House.
It really has you yearning for the NYC of before, when things were open and the streets were alive. Of course, these are not places I really ever frequented or activities I took part in. But, oh, do I ache for the option!
The best thing about Dash & Lily is how much better it is than the Santa sack of holiday trash that piles up on networks and streaming services this time of year.
I don’t really understand how the cottage industry of holiday-themed romances that blanket Hallmark and Lifetime’s 4 Million Days of Christmas—and now streaming services, too—also involve the con of them being horrible, to the point that it’s supposed to be part of the appeal.
I’m not sure all the people who carol on about how addicted they are to marathons of this dreck actually enjoy them, or if they just enjoy the faux personality trait they get to adopt once a year as the person who likes watching a city girl return to her rural home town, fall in love with the pie shop owner, and kiss exactly once, ad nauseum for two months straight.
On the one hand, I am a staunch supporter of anything that keeps Lacey Chabert gainfully employed—and if I said it once, I’ve said it a million times, The Princess Switch 2: Switched Again star Vanessa Hudgens is the Eddie Murphy of our generation. But as a Christmas lover, it’s offensive to me that when there are so many good Christmas movies, these cookie-cutter romances are the ones everyone obsesses over. It’s why I’m so grateful for Dash & Lily!
It elevates everything that is so superficial and phoned in about those other films. It’s profound in sneaky ways; there is a devastating arc revealing what casual childhood bullying does to a person, even if they seem adjusted years later. Just as cruelty is unnecessary, sadness lingers. And it’s deceptively funny. An instant icon: Lily’s wise aunt who remembers visiting McSorley’s “with Estelle Getty and the cast of Hair.”
It feels like New York in all the ways Emily in Paris does not feel like Paris, and feels like Christmas in all the ways I’m already devastated for missing out on this year. It’s about nice people who deserve happiness experiencing kindness when they need it and falling in love. It’s cute, people! We deserve this!