Of the two titular characters, Dash (Austin Abrams) would probably snicker if he came across a show of this premise, while I imagine Lily (Midori Francis) would down the eight episodes like a glass of Peppermint schnapps. If all of Netflix’s original holiday romcoms were made as tangible as ornaments on one giant Christmas tree, “Dash & Lily” would be made of wool, multicolor and probably bought from Anthropologie.
“Dash & Lily” was adapted by Joe Tracz (of the musical “Be More Chill”) from David Levithan and Rachel Cohn’s YA novel “Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares.” Teenagers Dash and Lily find themselves alone for the holiday season and strike up a “Love is Blind”-style courtship with a red notebook as the host of their interactions. Sparks fly as the two — never seeing each other face to face — trade dares back and forth to nudge the other outside of their comfort zone. The Netflix series makes a compelling case for the ongoing discussion about the promise of book-to-series adaptations. Had it been adapted as a movie, I am not sure the characters would have the space to grow on audiences as they do in the series’ eight-episode run. I have lamented the show’s decision to center the first episode around Dash. Dash, characterized like a more amenable Jughead, is a taste that can be acquired, but is a little too Grinchy and brooding to be a compelling introduction to this charming Christmas romcom. Instead, my initial interest in the series is largely owed to the character of Lily. While Lily’s voice begins the first episode, her appearance is limited to voiceover and mysterious shots of a girl in a red puffer. When she does arrive on screen, we get to know her as an optimistic Muppet-making weirdo.
Lily, like Midori Francis who plays her, is Japanese-American. In an interview with “People,” Francis gives a shout out to the production for taking care that every Asian actor in Lily’s family was actually of Japanese descent. It seems small, but it is a process that often gets bypassed by Hollywood casting that regularly compounds actors of Asian descent. I have always been a sucker for Christmas movies, but I cannot remember watching a single one growing up with an Asian lead. 2019’s “Last Christmas” with Henry Golding and Michelle Yeoh was an exception to the pattern of holiday films that delegate Asian-Americans as secondary or minor characters. “Holidate,” which came out two weeks before “Dash & Lily,” had a minor Asian American character whose role did not extend much beyond dated tropes of a submissive Asian love interest. Lily, much like Lara Jean in “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” felt like a marked departure from stereotypical depictions. Post an uncharacteristic snowman-attack, Lily bursts onstage at a slam poetry note that feels closer to a Kidz bop version of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” and launches into a spontaneous monologue that culminates in “I wish I could have stood up to all the bullies who made me feel too weird, too different, too Asian.” Midori Francis spoke to showrunner Joe Tracz about including that last “too.” Although the monologue itself was a bit overdone, I appreciated that last line even if it was only a second’s acknowledgment.
While a portion of the show’s appeal is attributable to the New York sites that play host to Dash and Lily’s love story, the series felt almost Canadian to me. In a “Schitt’s Creek”/“Kim’s Convenience” way, this is a story that feels more infused with heart than commercialism even as it may double as an extended commercial for The Strand. So many contemporary holiday movies are warped by an overt sense of self-consciousness. Some seem to crinkle their nose at their own genre, while others snowball in. Either way, the notch on the holiday-cheer-o’meter is too often dialed to the extreme. “Dash & Lily” feels grounded by its full-hearted embrace of its whimsy and a genuine care for all its characters. That being said, the supporting cast is one of the main gems of the story. Dash’s best friend Boomer (Dante Brown) and Lily’s family members are dimensional additions to the overall romantic storyline. In a lesser show, Dash’s ex-girlfriend Sofia could be easily villainized, but the series makes the mature decision to showcase her and Dash’s incompatibility without maximizing character flaws.
The demonstrated care cited by Francis and reflected in the writing of the characters seeps into all areas of the production. Cheerful allusions are woven throughout in a way that would delight pop culture aficionados (i.e. Lily refers to her fabulous great-aunt as Mrs. Basil E.). A wide variety of Christmas songs are pleasantly interspersed through “Dash & Lily.” The needle drops were excellent to the point where I started to be incredulous towards the potential production budget. My fiscal questions were answered when none other than the Jonas Brothers showed up in the final episode and I realized that Nick Jonas had executive produced the series.
“Dash & Lily” is far from perfect and requires a healthy amount of suspension of disbelief, but its imperfections and quirks are offset by such sincerity that I can not help but love it. It is the ideal holiday binge watch where all it asks of its audience is to have a little cheer. When given the choice between Bath & Body Works candle scents Merry Cookie, Sugared Snickerdoodle, Sweet Cinnamon Pumpkin and Pumpkin Pecan Waffles, my friend Olivia Fennell ’22 instantly named Sweet Cinnamon Pumpkin the aroma equivalent of this November Netflix addition.