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Dash reading the journal in grand central station Photo: Alison Cohen Rosa/Netflix

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Netflix’s YA rom-com Dash & Lily shows the festive appeal of a well-worn recipe

A romantic holiday romp through New York hits a whole lot different this year

Petrana Radulovic is an entertainment reporter specializing in animation, fandom culture, theme parks, Disney, and young adult fantasy franchises.

Throughout November, Netflix is pumping out the holiday specials and movies almost as fast as Starbucks baristas are pumping out sugary-sweet holiday-themed drinks. A Dolly Parton Christmas special, a new Princess Switch movie, and a follow-up to The Christmas Chronicles are just some of the offerings on Netflix’s holiday menu. The streaming platform’s latest holiday offering, Dash & Lily, is a TV series rather than a movie, and much like seasonal coffee beverages, it packages a whole lot of syrup.

Based on David Levithan and Rachel Cohn’s 2010 young-adult novel Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares, Dash & Lily follows two lonely teenagers in New York during the winter holidays. After cynical Dash (Austin Abrams) picks up a strange notebook left at iconic New York bookstore The Strand, he follows the instructions penned by its mysterious owner, quirky Lily (Midori Francis). Then he leaves her a dare of his own. The two end up planting the book for each other in various places in New York City, leading each other on a tinsel-filled scavenger hunt across the Big Apple.

That concept alone feels as cozy as a peppermint mocha (or a caramel brulee latte, if you have good taste), but Dash & Lily isn’t just fluffy holiday fun full of rom-com tropes and young-adult stereotypes. Both Dash and Lily manage to transcend the trappings of stock characters, making the series’ eight half-hour episodes not just a delicious treat, but a show that actually warms you up after the fact. Just try not to think too much about the extra calories.

[Ed. note: This review contains some light spoilers for Dash & Lily]

lily reading on the subway Photo: Alison Cohen Rosa/Netflix

Perhaps the biggest gripe about the series is that it does suffer from being a relic of 2010 young-adult literature that doesn’t entirely translate well 10 years later. Both lead characters sometimes fall into much-maligned pretentious YA novel stereotypes, with the writers reminding us that they’re “different” from (and, it’s implied, better than) their peers because they like to read and they tend to avoid social media. When John Green reached peak popularity in 2015, contemporary young-adult literature was criticized for having characters that were too unrealistically pretentious, intellectual, and fake-deep. Even as the genre evolved beyond that point, the stereotype persisted.

It’s one thing to have your romantic leads bond over liking the same books, or to have a 17-year old-character be a bit too big for their britches. (Who amongst us was an actual tolerable human being at age 17?) But the frustrating thing about Dash & Lily is that the writers constantly fault side characters for not knowing about popular children’s books like The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankenweiler. It’s not an overwhelming problem, but it is jarring enough to feel dated, stuck in the book’s original publication date of 2010 at best, and doing a major disservice to the show’s leads at worst.

Thankfully, Dash and Lily transcend that “not like other teens” archetype — and the jaded guy / spunky girl rom-com trope — by being fleshed-out characters. Lily, specifically, could easily be a standard Manic Pixie Dream Girl, weird but in a hot, edgy way. But her weirdness isn’t superficial, based on a few funky outfits. (Though her handmade clothes are effectively weirder than just slapping her in overalls and calling it a day.) Her unbridled enthusiasm and childish pastimes are actually a bit off-putting. She rambles a lot, and still approaches everything with the optimism of a small child. It’s her earnestness in an age of internet-driven cynicism that feels out of step, not so much her hobbies or clothing choices. Throughout the show, it becomes clear that Lily’s isolation from her peers isn’t strictly their fault — an incident in her past has caused her social anxiety to flare up when she’s in new situations, and she often self-sabotages before she even gets a chance to connect with anyone.

lily returning a book to a shelf Photo: Netflix

It helps that Francis imbues Lily with sparkling charm and just enough sadness underneath that wide-eyed smile to indicate that there’s something more to her than tinsel. It’s not just Lily — the writers and directors take care to make Dash believable and likable as well. Sure, he’s a stuck-up 17-year-old boy, but his clothes are a little too big for him, and the outward aloofness he projects is really a means to deal with his fear of opening up to others. Most of the show hinges on scenes where the leads aren’t together, but in one of the moments where they do meet — neither one realizing who the other is — they immediately connect, their specific peculiarities sparking together. It’s all too short and over too fast as they’re both pulled away, but it’s an indication that the connection they have in the journal could transcend to real life.

Throughout the show, both characters overcome their anxieties and the big problems in their lives. Though Lily and Dash seem diametrically different at first — he’s a cynic who hates the holiday season because his divorced parents overlook him, while she loves Christmas more than anything in the world — they both share an overwhelming sense of loneliness. As the show progresses and they send each other out of their comfort zones and reveal secrets to each other in that leatherbound notebook, we learn where their loneliness comes from. Even without meeting, they challenge each other to grow as people.

dash walking through the strand Photo: Netflix

But aside from the character growth, the scavenger hunt they embark on is deliciously fun. Sure, maybe it’s unrealistic to jet-set across New York City so efficiently (especially while navigating holiday crowds), but that’s part of the fantasy. They recommend restaurants to each other, and share their favorite quiet spots in New York. Dash sends Lily to an underground klezmer punk performance, while she makes him greet Macy’s Santa Claus. Seeing them run across the crowded city is almost wistful, given the current isolated state of New York City after COVID-19 hit particularly hard back in the spring. That alone unexpectedly turns this love letter to New York into something more meaningful, adding an extra layer to Dash and Lily’s isolation and the way they’ve been able to connect despite all the odds.

Dash & Lily buffs out the usual character tropes, but keeps the standard rom-com and holiday formulas, complete with Christmas cheer, penultimate misunderstandings, and final-act romantic gestures to save the day. But there’s nothing wrong with a good recipe, especially one that’s given a bit more flavor and care in construction — and especially one that might hit a little harder and give some much-needed warmth during an unusually tumultuous holiday season.

Dash & Lily is currently streaming on Netflix.