In 2020, the romantic comedy must be well-versed in the art of self-parody. Netflix originals often thrive at this, whether they’re underwhelming like Love, Guaranteed or just the right amount of cheeky, like Holidate. They know how to serve and subvert tropes, to poke fun at themselves, to deliver a predictable happy ending regardless.
Dash & Lily, based on a novel by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan, is so far removed from the irony and impudence of the new genre, so sincere and heartfelt and wide-eyed with joy that it seems only fitting it debut in the twilight of 2020, when hope might be making a cautious comeback. Even when it seems saccharine, the eight-episode miniseries has the heart of the great romcoms it undoubtedly admires.
Created by Joe Tracz, Dash & Lily follows its eponymous teen protagonists as they fall in love in the days leading up to Christmas — without ever meeting, just corresponding through a little red notebook. Through its pages they get to know each other, and challenge one another to escalating dares — not, like, lick a lamppost in subzero weather dares, but thoughtful trials that push them out of their comfort zones. Lily is a romantic who loves Christmas, while Dash is a cynic, encasing himself in a bitter, defensive exterior as one does after being burned by love (except he’s 17).
As part of the ongoing tradition to reclaim romcom tropes with vigor, Dash & Lily bursts with the sights and sounds of New York City at Christmastime. It romanticizes the city’s Yuletide fixings in a way that is particularly bittersweet in 2020, when those of us who would normally rather walk 10 blocks in the snow than get within spitting distance of midtown in December would give anything to be stuck behind tourists at the Rockefeller tree. It also prominently features the Strand bookstore, because ya gotta.
The show has to do the most contortion in repeatedly reminding you that it’s about teens. The first few episodes use “teenage” as a qualifier so often that it’s practically begging to be a drinking game. This feels like necessary overcompensation since Abrams and Francis are in their mid-20s, and their Manhattanite characters go to bars and clubs and parties with all the freedom of, you know, legal adults who have to show ID to get into these places. It honestly qualifies gaslighting and I denounce it.
It’s a rocky start because of the work we have to do to buy into this premise, but the series charms more and more with each episode — though it dips in the middle when the conflict can’t really sustain eight episodes so much as four or six. Despite the pleasant clichés peppered throughout, there are moments of untold wisdom, like Dash’s ex telling him, “When you put girls on pedestals, they fall,” and Lily’s scathing “I thought you’d be nicer” when they finally meet in the throes of high emotion.
Because this is a rom-com, it doesn’t matter that Lily is literally too young to vote. Everyone who meets her still pities her for being single because single people should be pitied at every age always! And because it’s a rom-com, characters mostly only care about Dash and Lily’s love life, though his friends and her family are refreshingly likable, every last one. Who has been hiding Troy Iwata and Dante Brown, and how dare you? Can Jodi Long be my great aunt full of saucy advice and adventurous anecdotes?
Even if it could do with a little less sugar, Dash & Lily goes down easy as a one-day holiday binge. It’s the perfect companion to a warm drink and a fireplace, to twinkling lights and carolers and Grand Central Station before dawn.
Oh god, they got me.
Dash & Lily is now streaming on Netflix.