By Maureen Lee Lenker
November 10, 2020 at 10:00 AM EST

Holiday rom-coms are the essence of feel-good entertainment, but how do you build chemistry between two characters when the vast majority of their interaction comes via voiceover?

That's the challenge at the heart of Dash & Lily, Netflix's new Christmas-set series based on the book Dash & Lily's Book of Dares by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan. But it's one that's been mastered before (see: You've Got Mail) and a challenge stars Austin Abrams (Euphoria) and Midori Francis (Good Boys) were well-poised to meet — by taking a page out of their characters' notebook.

The series follows Dash (Abrams) and Lily (Francis) over the course of the holiday season as a romance blooms between them through a series of shared musings and dares in a leather-bound notebook. So, Abrams and Francis did the same to get to know each other. "We did keep a notebook between us in terms of us like sharing intimate things about one another," Abrams tells EW.

"We connected right away and both cared a lot about our show," Francis adds. "We had a lot of late-night talks and it was very easy to feel him with me. A lot of the scenes where I‘m alone or he’s alone, we have the narration in our heads, so it’s easy to imagine that person’s with you."

For co-producer Shawn Levy, that chemistry was evident from early reads between the two stars, particularly in their blend of optimism and groundedness. "He has an authenticity on screen that we all thought would counterpoint the romanticism of the show," Levy says of Abrams. "Because the show is in many ways a cotton candy, delicious escape, but Austin grounds every scene with the naturalism of his acting. I thought that would be a really great presence in the show, and give it a really cool edge, even in the midst of its rose-colored, New York-at-the-holidays patina."

That patina was present in everything, including the show's festive soundtrack, which was curated by creator Joe Tracz (who is also a songwriter), Levy, and producer Nick Jonas. For Dante Brown, who plays Dash's best friend, Boomer, it was a chance for him to take a shot at getting his music heard.

"I sent Joe an email with my whole EP, like all of my music," he says with a laugh. The tracks didn't make the final cut, but he says the series still inspired him to write new music. "This show has given me the idea to make Christmas rap songs. We don’t have cool stuff for Christmastime for this generation, so I was getting to thinking how can I do something."

But key to crafting the atmosphere that pervades the show was filming on location in New York City prior to and throughout the holiday season of 2019. For the cast, it just elongated the build-up to the holiday — even if some New Yorkers didn't appreciate the early cheer. "We started filming in October of last year and it was not Christmas yet," remembers Francis. "We had like Christmas trees lined up on the bodega and there was one woman, an angry New Yorker, who was really upset we had Christmas trees out. I told her it was for a TV show; she did not care. We had to insert the holidays into the city even before it happened, and then it just collided."

Considering what New York and the country has endured in 2020 with the COVID-19 pandemic, the show is also inadvertently wistful. "We didn’t realize while we were shooting that it would have this feeling of nostalgia because we had no idea we were going to be in a global pandemic," says Troy Iwata, who plays Lily's brother Langston. "Because the holidays are not going to be the same this year, our show offers that escape, and it has a very nostalgic feeling even though it’s set now."

"The show was already a slightly idealized backdrop of New York in holiday season, but to watch it in the winter of 2020, it's not only a love letter to New York, but it's also a dream of a simpler, better time," adds Levy. "That wish-fulfillment quality is even more pronounced."

That quality extended meaningfully into representation for the actors too, particularly Iwata. "I was really excited to play a queer character whose main arc wasn’t this self-identity crisis or dealing with not being accepted by themselves or their family and friends," he says. "Even though that is a very common journey unfortunately with a lot of the queer community, I think it’s important to show a character that is just unapologetically themselves and is not questioned by themselves or their friends or their family. That’s a really important message of hope."

Something we could all use a little more of.

Watch the videos above for more. Dash & Lily is now available on Netflix.

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