The tradition of Christmas-themed limited series that are meant to be binge-watched before the tinsel loses its sheen is a relatively new (and very welcome addition) to the holiday entertainment landscape. You see, from my secular, northern-hemisphere-centric perspective, so much of the December holidays are about creating light and warmth in the darkest, coldest time of the year (and that feels truer than ever this year). And what are the slew of Christmas movies spawned each year but warm, fizzy, and bright formulaic holiday delights? Extending that into a series allows room for more creativity, development, and depth built around the same stalwart romantic framework we rely on for comfort watching.
Dash and Lily, which Netlfix adapted from a YA book written by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan, is the latest installment, and it does not disappoint. Over eight 25-minute episodes that switch back and forth between Dash (Austin Abrams) and Lily’s (Midori Frances) perspectives, the series follows the blossoming romance between two teenage strangers who communicate via letters, puzzles, and dares written in a red notebook.
A small complaint: I would argue that it could have been seven episodes without all the flashback sequences. Does anyone really think we’re going to take long enough to watch this that we might forget important plot points or touching moments? I function at 25-percent brain capacity most days and I managed to remember things. And perhaps we could have done without the Jonas Brothers concert and cameo by Nick Jonas? He is also an Executive Producer on the show, so maybe the series couldn’t have done without them, but I certainly could have. Is a Jonas Brothers appearance more for current teens watching the show or those who were teens during the Jonas Brother 1.0 era? I am neither and I don’t know the answer. And yes, that was two complaints.
It probably goes without saying, but you should only watch Dash and Lily if seasonal romances are your jam. And also if you can suspend your critical thinking long enough to believe that the notebook full of clues and challenges that Lily leaves nestled between copies of Franny and Zooey (because, of course it would be between copies of a J.D. Salinger book) gets found by a nice, straight, conventionally attractive, lonely boy who easily recognizes all her literary and musical references, and is willing to (mostly) follow the rules she lays out. (I’ve said it before, but with each passing Netflix rom-com I am more and more convinced that there is some contractual obligation to have explicitly stated rules between the lead characters.)
The show begins on December 17th with Dash annoyed by all the Christmas cheer and lamenting that Christmas is the “most detestable time of the year.” Dash is like if Holden Caufield, Jess Mariano from Gilmore Girls, and Hugh Grant from pretty much any of his movies in the 90s got together and had a baby. He has foppish blond hair, wears a perfectly threadbare pea coat over a fisherman’s sweater, and exudes intellectual superiority and scorn. I would have 1000% had a ginormous crush on him when I was teenager. (Rest assured, I do not have any such feelings for this actual youth who was born shortly after I graduated high school.) What saves Dash from being insufferable is that he’s also lonely, kind, awkward, unsure, vulnerable, and more than a little injured by romantic and familial relationships. This year he has pulled the old switcheroo by telling each of his divorced parents, both of whom are off gallivanting with new significant others, that he’ll be spending the holidays with the other one. They apparently do not communicate at all, thus leaving him free to hole up alone in his father’s extremely high-end and very grey apartment eating pizza, sipping bourbon (because also of course), and watching a depressing French film, which he insists is just how he likes to spend Christmas. Methinks he doth protest too much and all that jazz.
His other refuge from what he calls the “forced holiday cheer” and thoughts of his ex-girlfriend is the Strand bookstore where he does things like politely point out to the extremely annoyed shop clerk (Patrick Vaill, who is deliciously snide) that Gabriel García Márquez has been mis-shelved under M instead of G. (He’s not wrong about that being irksome.)
While browsing the Salinger section he of course also finds the red notebook left by Lily. He manages to work out her clues (which includes one about The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe) and meet her challenge of standing in the middle of the bookstore to recite “River” by Joni Mitchell. I am no at all mad about the inclusion of either of these references.
Then, just as Dash reaches December 18th, we zoom back in time to see Lily’s version of December 17th. She loves Christmas. I mean LOVES it. In fact, she is aggressively happy and positive about pretty much everything. She doesn’t have a love story? That’s totally fine because she has a loving family. Her parents ditch her to go to Fiji, her grandfather bails to go to visit his lady friend in Florida, and her brother is wrapped up (literally) with a new boyfriend? It’s totally fine because she has Christmas, God damnit, and she’s going to go carol her face off with her adult friends and be happy.
Now it’s time for us to back up for a second. Her parents just up and go to Fiji without any warning?!? This is kind of explained later, but the explanation only makes it worse. Lily’s parents are supposed to be kind and supportive people, but in reality they kind of seem like monsters who have probably caused their daughter some irreparable trauma. I hope we get to see Lily engage in some good therapy in later seasons.
Anyway, Lily is awkward and smart and very much lives in her own little bubble. She keeps herself constantly busy to distract herself from her loneliness. She’s also deeply scarred by her grade school bully, and is acutely aware of all the ways in which she’s not like other teenagers. She prefers hanging out with adults to people her own age because they “read real books” and don’t judge her homemade clothing. Lily also desperately wants to experience love. It’s at the urging of her brother and his new boyfriend Benny (Diego Guevara ), that she comes up with the clues and leaves the red notebook at The Strand. When she reads his response, Lily is completely put off by Dash’s jaded attitude toward Christmas, but, just as he is intrigued by her, she can’t stop being curious about him and the ways he encourages her to push her boundaries. And so the games begin. But it’s not really games, it’s more two people daring to be vulnerable and helping each other see their own value.
Obviously you know generally what will go down in the rest of the series, but it still feels sweet and fresh in the ways that it plays out. And beyond the general plot there is a lot to appreciate about the series. There’s a moment when Lily calls people out for perpetuating the idea that boys being mean to girls is because they like them. And another when Dash’s ex-girlfriend drops some truths about fairytales and men. BOOM! I love these little truth bombs that make dents in the patriarchy. Maybe it we put enough of those together we can eventually make the whole thing collapse. Also, the show is intentionally diverse in terms of race, culture, and gender. Lily comes from a huge multiethnic family that celebrates Christmas and visits the temple with her Asian-American grandfather (James Saito). Though it’s never pointed out, one of the members of Lily’s caroling group is played by a transgender actor. And let me tell you how much I enjoyed the supporting cast! There’s Lily’s great aunt (Jodi Long) whom she calls Mrs. Basil E—after the book The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankenweiler—an older woman with the most fantastic clothing who, when asked if she lives in her fabulously decorated house alone, responds coyly, “I live here, darling, but I am rarely alone.” I swoon.
Based on all my prior reviews, you’d think she would be my favorite character, but in this case she was edged out (okay, maybe it was a tie) by Dash’s best friend Boomer (Dante Brown). I adore his unbridled joy at what he insists on calling a “sting operation.” And then there is the gentle way he corrects Dash about the use of Voldemort’s name, his love of Japanese fighting robots, and his excitement that his aunt will bring all the Food Network dishes that are “too weird to be on TV” to Christmas dinner. I admit, for several episodes I hoped this kind and loyal person would end up being Lily’s real love interest, but that was not to be. And really, it was okay, and he gets his own ending that’s more or less satisfying.
The same is true of Lily’s brother and her old school grandfather (another delightful supporting character) who also end up facing down their own fears and shortcomings, which leads them to their own loves (both romantic and platonic). Given all the other characters, Lily’s parents are going to need to really put in the work in any future seasons to earn their way into my good graces.
But hands down my favorite part? The Chanukah episode. I mean, there’s a klezmer punk band called the Challah Back Boys (I so want them to be real) who perform an underground concert in the basement of a bakery on the seventh night of Hanukkah. Lily goes there on a dare from Dash, who wants to show her that weird is cool (be still my heart). To enter the show she has to get past the drag queen bouncer who asks, “What’s your drag, bubeluh?” Which is meant to ask, what’s your pain? There’s something so pure, and frankly so Jewish, about having to share your suffering in order to join the party. Plus, from a chronic illness perspective I like any club where you’re encouraged to be open about your pain. From the stage the lead singer (Nick Blaemire) explains that the spirit of Hanukkah is “rising up against your oppressors. Not letting other people define you.” You could argue whether or not that’s the truest interpretation of Chanukah (I’m not going to, but you could), but it’s perfect for this Hanukkah in this world.
And really, that explains the light that burns throughout this show: It’s a celebration of two awkward, loyal, wonderful outsiders stymied by outside expectations, who find connection through community, the written word, and being vulnerable enough to share their true selves. You really can’t ask for any greater miracle (Chanukah, Christmas, or otherwise) than that.