This holiday season, dare to fall in love: Thoughts on Dash & Lily

(image via IMDb (c) Netflix)

If you are one of a more romantic persuasion than most, then you will find a great deal to like about a show that combines romantic comedy and Christmas, two genres that together account for much of the swoon-worthy, sigh-worthy, rose-coloured glass wearing wonder that makes the escapist part of our world go around.

And there is a great deal to like about the eight-part series, Dash & Lily, based on the YA book Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares by David Levithan and Rachel Cohn, especially if you are the sort of person who finds the idea of meeting that special someone in the tinsel-deluged depths of the festive season to be the most impossibly romantic thing to ever happen to anybody.

Centred on the eponymous characters, played by Austin Abrams and Midori Francis respectively, Dash and Lily, is a confected delight of the highest order, one of those shows which is palpably unrealistic in just about every way, but which is effervescently warm and charming and full of good cheer and frothy romantic possibility that you will care not a jot.

In fact, the odds are very good that as you watch quirky, passionate, Christmas-loving Lily and sardonic, Christmas-hating Dash race around fulfilling all kinds of get-to-know-you dares in New York City, which by the way, is decorated so effusively in lights and tinsel and decorations of every conceivable kind that you could be forgiven for thinking you have wandered into Santa’s North Pole HQ, you will surrender yourself so completely to the experience that the idea of love in a time of extreme Christmas that you will quite happily feel like you’re on a continuous drip of eggnog, Santa’s hat and sumptuously festive window dressings.

It is, in the very best of all possible ways, Christmas overload.

But what makes Dash and Lily such an exuberantly wondrous joy to immerse yourself in, and trust if you are simply watching then show and not living it in some way then you are doing it all wrong, is how much of a substantial emotional core it possesses.

Dash and Lily are not simply two titular characters who exist solely to service a fantastically hopeful tale of love and festiveness, something which quite a lot of romantic comedies and Christmas-themed storytelling, and especially in films or shows that combine the two; rather they are two very human young people whose personas and outlooks are based in some fairly traumatic life experiences.

This willingness to look at the dark side of what makes the lead characters tick adds real emotional weight and substance to the show which could have simply otherwise disappeared into puffs of Christmas ephemera.

While Dash and Lily race from one part of New York City to the other, including the Christmas lights of Dyker Heights (Brooklyn), Macy’s and most notably, the iconic Strand bookstore, we come to know the lead characters in some fairly intimate ways.

They are served up to us mostly courtesy of the entries they make in a red journal (it must, of course, be red; green would also have worked), which starts its journey of uniting two very different people when Lily, at the urging of her gay brother Langston (Troy Iwata), leaves it between two books in the Strand, with the complicity of her cousin Mark (Patrick Vaill) who acts as the guardian of those who might be tempted to take up the challenges contained within.

For, you see, Lily, who has never been kissed and whose life is an interior one of books, crafting, making her own dresses and staying close to him with her grandfather (James Saito), and her parents (Jennifer Ikeda and Gideon Emery respectively) has never really known love, and decides, at her brother’s urging, to make this the season that all changes.

She is hampered, of course, by a past of bullying and ridicule, led by her handsome, cool kid tormentor from middle school, Edgar (Glenn McCuen) which left the free-spirited individualist feeling as she was just some kind of freak simply because she has never walked lock-step in time with the mainstream.

If you have ever felt like an outlier or outsider, you will find a lot with which to identify in the brazenly upbeat and positive but holding a whole world of painful rejection just below the surface Lily, as indeed you will with Dash, who, for all his quips and sense of being one step removed from the giddy silliness of life, has walls upon walls erected to keep people from getting too close, a product of a childhood split between warring divorced parents who ostensibly love him but who always seem to treat him as some kind of afterthought.

Dash, who initially won’t divulge his name except to say it means “a connector of words” – Lily keeps her name to her chest too, only revealing it, in secret, to Dash’s bestie Boomer (Dante Brown) who works at Two Boots Pizza (yes, it’s real my friends, as are pretty much all dare-heavy locations such as Four & Twenty Blackbirds in Gowanus and the Theatre Development Fund’s costume rental store in Astoria; thanks Time for the tip-off!)) which is one of the places where the journal is anonymously exchanged – may seem like a thousand kinds of cool but he is as much an outsider as Lily, despite his habitual presence at A-list teenager parties such as the Christmas Eve must-attend annual event run by Priya (Agneeta Thacker), bestie of his ex, Sofia (Keana Marie).

They are, thus, two lost souls who on first glance, might not seem even slightly kindred but who are, in fact, much more similar than either first recognises, either via their journal entries or in person, which really only happens towards the end of the series.

Sporting a distinct Sleepless in Seattle vibe, since the only contact the two have through most of the eight episodes is via reading each other’s journal entries alone, Dash & Lily is a consummate escapist delight that actually dares to revisit the kinds of trauma that all of us carry and which can, if left unattended, derail any chance we have of happiness in life or of finding some significant someone.

Because the show is written with such compassionate insight and understanding, all of which finds its way into two lead characters who are substantially and affectingly realised, Dash & Lily transcends its glitteringly festive surrounds to become a serious exploration of what it feels like to fall in love and become part of someone beyond yourself when your entire life has been devoted to staying safe and sound in your own highly-controlled slice of the world.

This commitment to being real and true about how falling in love isn’t just confection of buoyant happiness and marshmallow fluffy circumstances but a pretty intense battling of inner demons – think about it; yes, you are googly-eyed and vivaciously jaunty but you are also confronting the reality of the fact that someone is about to really get to know you – infuses every last part of the festive wonderland that is Dash & Lily.

It is that rare escapist show which gloriously celebrates the very ethereal, emotionally light and thrilling otherness of Christmas, a place where anything and everything can happen and all of it is good, very, very good, while managing to inject some real, earthy, grounded reality into proceedings, all without breaking the magic spell being woven by a show which adores and loves Christmas, New York and love itself, and importantly its two lead characters who are the beating heart of this most smile-inducing of shows. (All with an amazing array of music choices such as much personality to the show as it setting, witty dialogue and characters.)

Watch it because it is full to the brim of its innate festiveness, and because it loves narratively-convenient coincidences that you know aren’t even remotely realistic but accept without question anyway, and because it is an escapist bundle of giddy joy that makes the world seem like a place with promise and hope, but mostly because it celebrates that great longing we all have to experience life as fully and completely as possible and to do in the company who delights us and knows better than we know ourselves.

Is that too much of a fairytale? Maybe it is, but you will believe implicitly as you watch this most gorgeous and magically heartfelt of shows and who knows, you may even find yourself hugging Santa.

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