"The show is a love-letter to New York City during the holidays," says out actor Troy Iwata about the popular Netflix teen romantic comedy series Dash & Lily, in which he co-stars. And Iwata is right. New York City is in desperate need of affection.
The opening shots and subsequent scenes throughout the episodes are, in this pandemic year of 2020, an almost nostalgic look back at what was, until last year, an annual cornucopia of people, hustle, bustle, lights, traditions, windows, and trees in the world's most festive holiday city.
The establishing shot for the show is of a lit-up Rockefeller Center, with its stunning tree hovering above its famous ice rink and Radio City Music Hall - home of course to the Rockettes' Radio City Christmas Spectacular. I passed these sights frequently on my way to the gym, with windows that looked over a sparkling tree surrounded by adoring fans.
This year, there are no fans, just a socially distanced tree that you need a ticket to go see.
Perhaps my favorite scenes, and most personal, are the interior and exterior shots of Macy's Herald Square, where for years I helped lead media relations for Macy's, and escorted the hundreds of national and international reporters who traipsed through the store's main floor crowds each December taping their holiday stories. After a while, the luster wore off, and maneuvering through droves of tourists and frenzied shoppers became a logistical nightmare, but wow, how I miss it this year.
I also helped lead media relations for Toys "R" Us, Sears, and Kmart, all three which are past tense, like the jobs. The holiday work started when I managed the numerous media mixed in with the large crowds outside our marquee stores, and those crowds too were gone this year. All the tent-pool memories evaporated in the era of COVID-19.
As a New York City resident for the last 27 years, I've been there and done all that when it comes to the holidays, and admittedly now realize I took it all for granted. Last year at this time, I was no doubt complaining about the excessive crowds of tourists who poured into the city to take in all that I had done. They were a nuisance, in my way as I navigated a walk through the masses on my to workout at Rock Center, worked to hail a cab or an Uber which inevitably becomes a fight for survival of the fittest, or attempted to get a reservation at a restaurant in Midtown and being told, "You should have called two months ago."
Then there were the hordes of holiday revelers who blocked sidewalks, taking pictures and taking it all in, especially in front of marquee stores with lavishly decorated holiday windows. Macy's displays are featured in Dash & Lily, and the images made me recall the time I gave CNN a backstage tour of the magic behind those famous windows - truly the miracles on 34th street. Even as a cynical New Yorker, you can't help but marvel at their majesty, and I go to see them every year, despite knowing I will encounter and loath an overflow audience. But the holidays wouldn't be the same without seeing them.
This year, it will be soberly different, and I never thought I'd hear myself say this, but the holiday tourists will be missed, both from a merry point of view and an economic one. The New York Business Journal recently reported that the city drew a record 66.6 million visitors last year and was on pace for even more this year; however, only one-third will make their way to the city in 2020 due to the pandemic. Moreover, it might take until 2024 for the city to recover from the dramatic fall in tourism.
New York City will be much more alone this year during the holidays, and one of the themes of Dash & Lily is about being single at what is arguably the most wonderful time of the year, so while the show paints a pretty and reminiscent picture of a city full of pageantry and holiday revelers, the premise is a subtext for a metropolis in 2020 that will be without its beloved companion - holiday tourists.
Iwata, who plays Langston, the gay brother of the lead character Lily, talked about how the show looks now in the face of the pandemic. "It's interesting because of course last year we had no idea what was to come while we were shooting the show, so while Dash & Lily deals with finding relationships during the holidays, it also provides the audience with a special feeling, and a joyous escape really, to the vibe of the city during the holidays, and a reminder of what will be missing this year, which is that special relationship between the city and its visitors."
What is it about the holidays that makes relationships so critical, I wondered? Was it that films and television shows for decades have romanticized the relationships between two forlorn lovers and New York City and its holidaymakers?
"I think there is a more urgent feel for a relationship during this time of year, because people want to share all of these wonderful moments with someone they love, and in a place that makes them feel special and gets them in the spirit of the season," Iwata suggested. "This is the time of year you want to be surrounded by people, whether that's a lover, family or friends, or in the city, even strangers."
I asked Iwata, who has lived in New York City for almost seven years, if he too might have had his patience tempted with tourists in the past, but now might feel their loss this year? "Oh, I'm definitely guilty of that," he laughed. "Personally, I learned the New York way of abruptly saying 'excuse me' and then hurriedly bumping and passing tourists. It won't be the same this year, and I agree with you that I'm going to miss that as well."
Like the rest of us here in New York City, Iwata will be hunkered down with his boyfriend during the next few weeks. "My favorite holiday memories in the city are of being a struggling actor and getting together for Friendsgiving or on Christmas with other actors who couldn't afford trips back home, and creating our own families," he reminisced. "With the pandemic this year, and obviously the requests to keep crowds and groups to a minimum, and with travel limited, etc., I'll be comfortably and happily celebrating with my boyfriend."
For many of us here in New York City, it won't be the same. The Macy's parade will be virtual, there won't be any trips to see Santa, the Rockettes have been cancelled, and the famed Union Square holiday market is shut down this year. The store windows will still be dazzling, but only to a few. The streets will be less full, and the city alone and heartbroken this year without its annual dalliance with fawning sightseers.
Next year, I hope everyone comes back, and I promise not to complain.
John Casey is editor at large for The Advocate.