Imagine you’re in New York City during Christmas. The streets are streaked with bright lights, festive carolers, buzzing street markets, and fluffy, white snow. You enter the Strand Bookstore to escape the winter chill, and inside, you spot a red leather notebook, tucked away near J.D. Salinger’s works. Do you open it?
If you’re anything like one of the protagonists of Dash & Lily, you do. Released on Netflix on Nov. 8, this eight-episode miniseries follows two young people—cynical, brooding Dash (Austin Abrams) and bubbly, bright Lily (Midori Francis)—who develop a romantic relationship without ever meeting but solely through passing a red notebook between one another. As the days count down to Christmas, Dash and Lily dare one another to explore new places and try new things, placing the notebook in a new location each time. In a Sherlockian game, the two run through New York City, from an abandoned Grand Central Station to Jewish punk concerts, pushing each other out of their comfort zones, changing each other for the better.
Both characters are as multidimensional as they are engaging and relatable, largely due to the skillful acting of the leads and an adept writing team. Francis particularly impresses with her outstanding range, making a character that could have easily appeared saccharine and overbearing a sweet, intelligent firecracker.
One of the particular strengths of Dash & Lily is that it places a great emphasis on courage, and prioritizes a sense of adventure above any cliché-laden ideas of surface-level attraction prevalent in the rom-com genre. By doing so, Dash & Lily reveals the importance of being open to new experiences when entering a relationship and trusting the magic of a deep, emotional connection.
Two outstanding episodes are those directed by Pamela Romanowsky, “Hanukkah” and “Cinderella,” which pay homage to the fairy tales Alice In Wonderland and Cinderella. Romanowsky’s fantastical nightmare sequence of Lily descending the proverbial rabbit hole into an underground punk concert is particularly striking in its grotesque artistic vision and ingenious manifestation of social anxiety. Other episodes are visually clean, impressively switching between the festive grandiosity of Manhattan streets and the quiet intimacy of the students’ interactions.
Despite its heart of gold, the show is spotted with pitfalls. Certain plot points do not make much sense at all, such as a scene where Dash scrolls through Instagram hashtags to find his friend—leading the viewer to wonder whether the writers had ever been on Instagram. Other examples include a scene in which Lily’s brother breaks up with his boyfriend for going on a two-week vacation and one where Nick Jonas randomly pops up to give advice to Dash. Most offensive of all, however, is when Dash’s ex-girlfriend rents out a museum to use as a saucy hookup spot, and it is implied they have sex on a priceless museum artifact.
While the show’s cast represents a diverse array of identities, some of the supporting figures are overlooked by the writers. A glaring example of this is the “Black Best Friend” trope, filled by Dash’s bizarrely-named best friend Boomer, who seems to have no purpose outside of helping Dash. While Boomer is shown to have a family, he lacks any romantic interests or genuine friends other than Dash. He works as a tool to further the plot, always being on hand to spot Lily, consult Dash, and literally drop everything he’s doing in the middle of a work shift (at a Pizzeria, with a line waiting) to run 45 minutes to pass a hint along to Dash.
Still, despite the naïveté and the suspension of disbelief that the watcher must have in order to buy into the show, even the most cynical of viewers will be charmed into holiday-magic believers after eight episodes. Full of cinematic shots of New York City in the winter, a refreshing cast, and a clever insight into young love, Dash & Lily is both an escapist and thought-provoking treat.