Dash & Lily: Season 1 (2020)

Dash & Lily is an 8-episode-long Netflix series set entirely around the holidays. Now that binge-able shows are the norm, I suppose it was inevitable that these would start popping up (I speculated as much while talking about season 3 of Fargo last year).

I'll acknowledge I'm having a hard time wrapping my head around what Dash & Lily is, or at least what it's best described as. At the time I'm writing this, I don't know for sure if it's intended as a limited series, the first season of an ongoing show, or what. But even beyond that, it kind of exists in a gray area between television and film. It doesn't conform to either medium, but rather incorporates elements as needed.

Which is great, honestly. I sometimes think we get overly attached to conventions to the point that entertainment is forced into boxes it doesn't belong in. The vast majority of what defines a "television show" or a "theatrical film" is based on the limitations of those mediums. Shows aren't 30 or 60 minutes (or 22 and 45) because those are objectively perfect amounts of time; it's because of scheduling and advertising limitations. Likewise, movies are typically pressured into a 90-to-120-minute range (unless they're epics), due to perceived audience attention spans and showings per day. Then of course there are outdated ratings and content rules in both mediums.

Streaming has none of these limitations, so in theory, everything produced for that purpose should be able to be made in the form best suited to each specific story. In practice, we're not really there yet - producers still seem to want shows around the length of "normal" programs, but there's more flexibility (especially around ratings and content).

The reason I bring all this up is to highlight the fact that while Dash & Lily is still a television series, it's also a romantic comedy. And I mean that in its most literal sense: structurally, tonally, and in every sense of the term, this has more in common with theatrically released romcoms - both classic and modern - than it has in common with, say, a sitcom.

Of course, it would be unfair to compare this to a 90-minute movie. It would be unfair, but I'm going to do it anyway, because...

Because Dash & Lily is easily one of the best holiday romcoms ever made. It's goddamn magical.

To be clear, I'm not grading on a curve. The production values on this are stunning, the cast is fantastic, and the writing is on par with anything I've seen in this genre in decades. The fact it's decompressed over three hours and change gives it time to explore the characters and have fun with its conceit. It never feels too long or tedious.

The premise of this centers on a notebook passed back and forth between the teenage protagonists through a series of intermediaries. The idea is it's a romcom where the two leads don't meet until the end - sort of a twist on The Shop Around the Corner/You've Got Mail blueprint (though this time they actually don't know each other). Dash starts out overly cynical; Lily is too self-conscious. Through a series of dares, gifted experiences, and written correspondence, they fall in love with each other and grow as people. And of course, there are the requisite complications, obstacles, and twists.

I don't think it's all that original a concept, but it's the execution that sells it. The series makes excellent use of flashbacks that revise the audience's understanding of what's going on. It presents New York City in a way that at once highlights the very real diversity and beauty while elevating it to a sort of magical realm (think Amelie). In other words, it's doing the now cliched conceit of treating the city like a character, and IT SELLS IT.

I could nitpick quite a few things, of course. There are sequences that don't work, side characters who could probably have been cut, there are way too many needle drops, the teenagers don't always act like teenagers... but honestly all that's minor stuff. For every scene or twist that doesn't work, there are three more that do. Even the superfluous characters are fun. The Jewish punk band alone makes up for the cliched use of Christmas Wrapping and Fairytale of New York. And while I don't buy some of the characters as realistic teens (Dash in particular feels more like a thirty-year-old man with a Ph.D. in German Philosophy than a 17-year-old kid), I still really liked them as characters.

And, yes, the ending is overly sweet and absurdly simplistic, but that comes with the genre. Dash & Lily isn't trying to transcend being a romcom - it's demonstrating a romcom can work as an 8-episode streaming series. Hell, it demonstrates it works better that way.

If you're looking for something sweet, I highly recommend this. People who know me usually assume I dislike romcoms, but that's not accurate. I just have really high expectations for the genre, and I'm almost always disappointed. This one didn't disappoint - it belongs on a short list of truly great Christmas romantic comedies. Check it out.