Do not fall into Dash & Lily‘s trap. Within the first few minutes of Netflix’s whimsical eight-episode Y.A. holiday rom-com, you may immediately come to despise its protagonists — a sneering, disaffected, floppy-haired rich kid and a peppy, idealistic, kiss-starved mousling — due to the cloying contrivances of their meet-cute alone. Just days before Christmas Eve, in the hallowed stacks of NYC bookstore The Strand, contrarian Dash (Austin Abrams) finds a notebook containing riddles and puzzles about clues hidden around the cavernous building. Lily (Midori Francis) flirtatiously narrates the quest as Dash plows through the game with heightening fervor. “She’s sarcastic, sophisticated …sadistic,” he fawns later to a friend, never once considering the notebook’s author may not be the dream girl he’s envisioning.
In the meantime, you may become nauseous from the faux-literary snobbery, shouting at the screen “Reading is NOT a personality!” (Swotty gushing over J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey is practically a pop culture cliché at this point.) By the end of the episode, I desperately wanted You‘s Joe Goldberg to pop out from a shadow and gobble up both these teen pseudointellectuals. You see, I had fallen squarely into the show’s trap: Like Dash, I had been catfished.
Adapted from Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan, the series purposefully cranks up its protagonist’s most irritating qualities head-on, then slowly releases the pressure valve on each to showcase their personal growth due to the other’s influence. Over time, Dash’s hilariously unearned misanthropy relaxes into low-level sociability and Lily’s gratingly cheerful immaturity coarsens into age-appropriate rebelliousness. Like a medium-quality donut, Dash & Lily goes down sweet and easy, but still ends up leaving a slick of unctuous film on the roof of your mouth.
In late December, two posho Manhattanite teens wallow in their own holiday misery. Black-clad Dash, nursing a broken heart, tricks each of his divorced parents into thinking he’s spending Christmas break with the other and decamps at his father’s penthouse to watch black-and-white French films all by himself. Tinsel-bedecked Lily, lover of all things Christmas, is horrified to learn her parents are vacationing in Fiji alone this year instead of reveling in their typical holiday traditions. (You have no idea how many times I wrote “Get a real tragedy, Lily!” in my notes.)
Following the bookstore scavenger hunt, the two embark on an anonymous epistolary romance via notebook, each challenging the other to participate in activities that increasingly dislodge them from their individual comfort zones. For example, Dash pushes sheltered Lily to attend a 2 a.m. underground klezmer-punk show and Lily forces Dash to join a mochi-making class with Japanese grannies. Lily doesn’t even know her suitor’s name and just dreamily refers to him as “Notebook Boy” for most of the season.
I imagined this show was probably pitched as a Christmas-themed You’ve Got Mail-meets-Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist. In fact, if the plot does sound vaguely familiar, please note Cohn and Levithan also wrote the Y.A. novel on which Nick and Norah is based. Just swap out punky L.A. private school hipsters for bookish New York private school intelligentsia.
I was amused that the show is quick to condemn Dash with a lot of adjectives, other characters calling him, “snarky,” “finicky,” “persnickety” and “annoyingly pedantic.” (Admittedly, his pea coat does kind of groan, “I’m sooo dark and no one understands meee.”) Yet, he remains much more palatable than squeakily diffident Lily, whose idea of trauma amounts to being made fun of once in middle school.
Luckily, Dash & Lily is neither clumsy nor cheap-looking. Thanks to energetic cinematography from Eric Treml and candid direction from the likes of Fred Savage and Pamela Romanowsky, the show’s saccharine candy shell soon melts to reveal a richer emotional core. In addition to being drawn into Lily’s involved family politics, we soon meet Dash’s ex Sofia (Keana Marie), who, refreshingly, isn’t a vengeful or desperate virago like you’d expect. Her renewed longing for Dash isn’t about possessiveness but familiarity. And soon, she’s offering some of the wisest advice I’ve seen in a teen rom-com, reminding Dash not to unfairly build up the Lily in his head and to stop trying to live out a fairytale fantasy of rescuing a heroine from her (inner) demons. “When you put girls on pedestals, they fall.”
Abrams (Euphoria) and Francis’ (Good Boys) humming excitement for each other is so convincing you barely even notice they share but just a handful of scenes together. Instead, their characters mainly interact with friends, family, and strangers who all, wittingly or otherwise, assist the two in completing their tasks for the other. Still, despite their jejune ardor, 26-year-old Francis and 24-year-old Abrams are so obviously un-teenager-like that I laughed when I realized midway through the series they’re actually supposed to be in high school. I could not figure out why Lily’s grandpa/BFF (James Saito) was outraged a 20-something was partying until 4 a.m. or how she could possibly be grounded for it.
Relish funny guest turns from Larry Owens as a wild art instructor, Michael Cyril Creighton as a snappish mall employee/drag queen bouncer and Patrick Vaill as a curmudgeonly bookstore clerk, each of whom nurture this hatching courtship. “Hey kid if you ever want to work here… I’ll remember this,” the clerk snarls when Dash “helpfully” points out an inventory error. Just try resisting the charms of dressing down a Holden Caulfield wannabe. Go ahead, I dare you.
Cast: Austin Abrams, Midori Francis, Dante Brown, Troy Iwata, James Saito, Jodi Long, Glenn McCuen
Producted by: Joe Tracz, Shawn Levy, Josh Barry, Nick Jonas, Brad Silberling
Premieres: Tuesday, November 10th (Netflix)