Netflix’s Dash & Lily – which boasts a 100% ‘fresh’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes isn’t just festive fun: the TV series has something important to say about romcom tropes and men’s expectations of women, too.
Transforming the classic Christmas romcom into an oh-so-bingeable TV series, the show sees cynical Dash (Austin Abrams) and optimistic Lily (Midori Francis) trade dares, dreams, and desires in the notebook they pass back and forth at locations all across New York City.
Over time, the chalk ‘n’ cheese pair find they have more in common with each other than they would have expected. And, as their penpal relationship becomes something deeper, our eponymous heroes start wondering if…
Well, if maybe they should meet up IRL and see if the spark burns even brighter?
Essentially, it takes all the elements we love of You’ve Got Mail – love, great penmanship, strangers pouring their hearts and souls out to one another – and ditches the computers in favours of handwritten messages. It also, obviously, opts for two bright-eyed high school juniors as opposed to two 30-something bookshop owners. And it injects a whole lotta Christmas into things, too.
As such, it is (as you’ve undoubtedly guessed) the sort of show that lifts your spirits, restores your faith in the basic goodness of people, and makes you smile until your face aches.
It’s hardly surprising, then, that critics have heaped praise on this candy cane confection, sending it soaring into the dizzying heights of the 100% ‘fresh’ ratings world of Rotten Tomatoes.
However, it’s worth noting that there’s more to this show than mere sweetness and light, as this writer found out herself when she watched the entire eight-episode series over the course of a weekend.
With that in mind, then, please be aware that the rest of this article contains light spoilers for Dash & Lily. So please do not proceed until you’ve seen in New Year’s Eve with our impossibly attractive romantic heroes, OK?
Neatly side-stepping festive romcom conventions, Dash & Lily doesn’t have our starry-eyed souls get together on Christmas day.
Instead, we see Lily rush to visit her aunt in episode seven, only to learn that Dash hasn’t dropped off the notebook.
Cue a series of events which lead to her realising that she actually met Dash at a party the previous night, but that she saw him leaving with his ex-girlfriend, Sofia (Keana Marie). Which is… yeah, it’s all kinds of ouch.
And so, dealing with heartbreak as anyone would on the 25 December, Lily goes to a local alehouse, gets drunk on peppermint schnapps (only one person seems to notice she’s underage, but hey-ho!), and kisses her high school bully, Edgar (Glenn McCuen).
Unfortunately, though, it seems Dash only made out a little bit with his ex. Because, after a brief bit of fooling around, both he and Sofia realised that they didn’t love each other, not really, and so decided to spend the night at the library together as friends.
You guessed it: Dash wakes up and decides his heart belongs to Lily. And so, overcome with the magic of Christmas for the first time, he goes to buy tickets to the new Pixar movie Collation, before rushing to the pub to find her making out with Edgar.
Sure, he makes sure Lily gets home safe to her aunt’s house. And yet, despite the fact that he was kissing Sofia just a little while ago (and despite the fact that he can see Lily is wasted), he gets incredibly judgemental about her kissing other guys.
She, in turn, tearfully tells him the notebook wasn’t even her idea (gasp!), and Dash decides enough is enough.
All of this means that, the morning after the night before, a very hungover Lily wakes up to find her final letter from Dash.
“We set ourselves up for disappointment,” it begins, noting that “the fantasy was never going to live up to the reality.”
Dash’s letter goes on to note that it was his fault for believing she was something she’s not (and can’t you just feel the teen angst dripping from every line?), before telling Lily that he doesn’t want to see her ever again.
“It’s better if we move on,” he adds coolly.
No more spoilers. You need to get to the finale yourself, and I don’t want to ruin where the show goes after delivering this utterly devastating blow (although there will obviously be a happy ending, don’t worry).
However, it’s worth noting that it’s heartening to see a romcom deal directly with men’s expectations of women, and the “fantasy girl” ideal.
Even in 2020, it seems a woman’s virtue is still heralded as a precious gift, the sexual promiscuity of women is still punished with slut-shaming, victim-blaming and public disgust. And, of course, too many misogynist media outlets remain obsessed with that tired old question: what do men find attractive?
Even Dash, who seems perfect on paper, is not immune to this way of thinking. He’s built up an idea of the chaste, never-been-kissed-before Lily, and when he sees her sloppy-drunk and making out with someone who’s not him, he’s repulsed. The reality feels too stark a contrast to the ‘fantasy girl’ he’s built up in his head.
Lily, though, has always made a point of living her truth. When she was bullied by her schoolmates for making friendship bracelets and being a “weirdo,” she clipped one of those homemade accessories to her wrist as a reminder to be herself, no matter what.
And, when her Grandpa Arthur (James Saito) tells her she’ll have to move out unless she admits that her drunken antics and embarrassing behaviour were the result of a boy’s influence, she stands firm. Because those were her mistakes, and hers alone, and she wants to own them wholeheartedly.
All of this means that Dash & Lily isn’t just a show that’s bursting with holiday magic; it also challenges the flaws of the traditional romcom and takes them down, one by one. Because Lily isn’t Grease’s Sandra Dee, changing herself for a man. Nor is she You’ve Got Mail’s Kathleen Kelly, blindly ignoring the faults of the man who duped her for months on end.
And, perhaps more importantly, Dash isn’t the romcom archetype who gets exactly what he wants with barely any effort or emotional growth, either.
With all that in mind, then, give Dash & Lily a watch this winter. You honestly won’t regret it.
Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.