I’ve been obsessed with America and specifically New York, for as long as I can remember. Two early influences on this obsession were Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992) and being ‘stuck’ or ‘stranded’ at the Plaza like Kevin is still my life’s ambition and the book Remember Me to Harold Square by Paula Danzinger (published in 1987), which involves a teenager going on a ‘Serendipity’ Scavenger Hunt all over the city (and of course, falling in love along the way). Therefore, when I found out that Netflix’s latest Christmas romance involved a series of dares that would lead its two protagonists all over New York, I went from barely noticing it, to watching it immediately.
Dash & Lily is unusual in the Christmas canon – an area in which Netflix has started to increasingly encroach on Hallmark and Lifetime – in that it’s a series and not a movie. But with only 8 episodes, ranging in length from 23-27 minutes, it’s extremely bingeable and you will get through it in no time. It’s also skewered much younger than the usual Christmas movie, with it being centred around two 17 year olds. Dash (Austin Abrams of Euphoria and Chemical Hearts) is stuck between two divorced parents who both think he’s with the other one, he’s told most of his friends that he’s out of town and has settled in for a Christmas of self-isolation. Lily (Midori Francis), on the other hand, is crushed by the fact that her parents are in Fiji for the holidays, her Grandfather (James Saito) is in Florida and her brother Langston (Troy Iwata) is busy with new boyfriend Benny (Diego Guevara).
Langston takes it upon himself to “devise a quest to help my sister (Lily) find her soulmate…it’ll be like a scavenger hunt,” this involves leaving clues from different books in a red notebook and leaving the notebook at the iconic Strand bookstore, where it’s found by – you guessed it – Dash. Clues aren’t the only thing in the notebook though, there are also dares, the first of which involves Dash delivering a rendition of River by Joni Mitchell to the entire bookstore. Dash and Lily start leaving the red notebook for each other in different locations around the city and daring each other to leave their comfort zone. They also write about things they’re going through and feeling in the notebook and start to become close, despite never having met. It’s like an analogue version of an online friendship/romance.
One of the greatest strengths of Dash & Lily is the diversity of the characters. This does mean that Dash gets a ‘Black best friend’ – Boomer (Dante Brown, who is great in the role he is given) who only exists to be supportive of the white central character, an unfortunately over-used trope (present in another Netflix show, The Queen’s Gambit at the moment). However, the rest of the supporting characters are reflective of contemporary New York life, with Lily being part of a caroling troupe that includes lesbian Aryn (Leah Kreitz) and trans woman Roberta (Ianne Fields Stewart). One of the best sequences involves Dash daring Lily to go to club night run by a gay Jewish couple which plays klezmer punk music.
One of the other delightful aspects of the show is Lily’s family, culture and traditions – which are interwoven into proceedings. One of the dares involves Dash making mochi with a group of Japanese women, in a nice twist on the traditional ‘baking Christmas cookies’ scene in most Christmas fare. Lily is also close with both her Grandfather and his sister – Great Aunt Lillian (Jodi Long) – who is known as Mrs Basil E. This is a reference to the book From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler (a book I have ordered since watching the show), about two children who run away from home and hide out in The Met. Lillian has an AMAZING home and she is an incredible character. Incidentally, Lily’s apartment is also gorgeous – the sets and locations are a huge selling point here.
Things culminate at a Christmas Eve party involving Dash’s ex Sofia (Keana Marie) and Lily’s childhood bully Edgar (Glenn McCuen). Home Alone gets a shout-out, Lily wears an amazing light-up Christmas Tree jumper, Dash and Sofia end up in The Morgan Library & Museum after-hours – it’s all so good. Lily does lean into some Manic Pixie Dream Girl qualities – particularly in how she dresses – but the whole thing is mostly a refreshing twist on the played-out teen rom-com and Christmas movie tropes. The quest/scavenger hunt/dare aspect, the New York of it all, the literary and other cultural references and the diverse cast mean this is elevated above what you might expect from a Netflix Christmas romance. Oh and if you need further persuading – half of the episodes are directed by Fred! Savage!
It is easy, as I did initially, to lump Dash & Lily in with the rest of Netflix’s Christmas offerings and dismiss it as not worth the bother. I’d strongly urge you to reconsider this, because it’s actually one of the most enjoyable experiences of the year and if you’re anything like me, you’ll be sad when it’s over. It will have you yearning for New York and, obviously, the ability to freely move around a city’s bookstores, museums, pubs and clubs. Midori Francis as Lily is charming, Abrams continues to use his laid-back slacker Holden Caulfield cynicism to great effect (although his gravelly and mumbly tones will probably have you reaching for the closed captions) and the supporting cast are wonderful. You won’t regret adding this to your holiday line-up, as it’s sure to warm some cockles and melt some hearts, even in this, the most challenging of years. A delight.