Directors: Fred Savage, Pamela Romanowsky, Brad Silberling
Writers: Joe Tracz, Carol Barbee, Lauren Moon, Harry Tarre, Rachel Cohn, David Levithan
Cast: Austin Abrams, Midori Francis, Troy Iwata, Dante Brown, James Saito
Streaming on: Netflix
The world (America, really) is over a month away from Christmas but the holiday season content line-up is already at the door with the fury of a flood. Many of them are bad apples; some are rotten apples that are the cinematic equivalent of a Hallmark card; some have Dolly Parton; and a few are actually really good — the cheesy, watch-in-your-pajamas-with-ice-cream good. The first season of Dash & Lily is quite close to the last one on the list — it is Netflix’s substitute for hot chocolate with marshmallows.
Dash & Lily, while not entirely new in concept, is not mawkishly trite either. Christmas has given films and shows the excuse to lather us with candies, cookies, and carols till it gets unpalatable. Their ultimate motive is to flaunt a kiss under the mistletoe. The Netflix series, thankfully, does not try to conjure up an alluring fantasyland filled with nutcracker dolls. Instead, it creates a lighthearted little world in Manhattan with characters that have more to them than an elf-like do-goodism.
Based on the YA novel Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan, the series covers the story of two teenagers — a Christmas cynic and a lively believer of the Christmas miracle. The latter, Lily (Midori Francis), after feeling depressed over her lack of romantic encounters, decides to plant a secret diary in a bookstore that sends the reader (she mentions that it must be an age-appropriate guy) into a treasure hunt. The jaded, Kafka-inspired teen, Dash (Austin Abrams, Paper Towns) after solving all clues, responds to Lily’s message in the diary, unaware of who she is. And from then on, they oscillate back and forth giving each other puerile, but sometimes mature, dares and challenges, while also opening up about themselves. You’d expect a flamboyant Lit major to write the way they do.
Despite their clearly manufactured wit and lexical elegance, the characters have a fetching quality to them. They are the kind of people you’d want as friends but not close ones, especially Dash. They enthuse over art, express strangely adult thoughts, and share a proclivity for risk and exploration. Dash makes Lily attend underground, Hanukkah parties; she makes him steal Santa’s hat from a frenzied Macy’s store. While their fairly elastic comfort zones appear contrived and unreal, it is fizzy enough to look appealing. After all, shows such as this are meant to take creative leaps.
However, this chirpiness, adventure-filled spirit does grow fainter as we move deeper into the season. The set-up begins to dry; it goes on for far too long (a solid four episodes) — becoming more gimmicky than fun. As Dash and Lily try out new things, you wish the show would do the same. These episodes have enough to pop but not quite enough to demand your investment. However, the second half of the season makes up for everything the first half lacks — an involving, well-paced story. This is the point where the series relies on the plot’s strength and tension instead of tone. The saccharine aftertaste doesn’t feel nearly as overpowering. They replace the characters’ French-themed personas with some sincere, vulnerable moments. This is where Dash loses his pretenses for a more earnest but confused personality, and Lily her supreme sweetness for a person mired down by their own baggage.
For a show or movie to be all cutesy and endearing, one need not sprinkle it with inanity. Content can be equal parts smart and laid back. And this series balances that fairly well. It does not conflate escapism for oversaturated, vacuous narratives. Each character has something to contribute — Lily’s brother isn’t defined by his homosexuality here but by his relationship as a sibling; Dash’s ex is an understanding, accommodating individual instead of a conniving girlfriend straight out of a Sorkin script. If all rom-coms took the genre more seriously as this one, we would not be subjected to the typical fluff that is churned out almost every week.
Dash & Lily Season 1 is streaming on Netflix.