To All the Boys Spinoff XO, Kitty Is a Charming If Occasionally Clumsy Teen Romp

TV Reviews XO Kitty
To All the Boys Spinoff XO, Kitty Is a Charming If Occasionally Clumsy Teen Romp

They say you can’t go home again. But maybe you can go somewhere new. This is clearly the thinking behind Netflix’s XO, Kitty, a follow-up to the popular To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before film franchise that not only stars one of its original cast members, but embraces many of the same elements that made that trilogy of films such a success: stylish, pastel-colored vibes, snappy dialogue, a charming cast, an unabashed love of romance and teen drama tropes, and—most importantly—a deep understanding of the monumental heft of teenage emotion.

Yet, despite its narrative connection to the original movies—and a handful of direct Lara Jean and Margot references—this new series is very much its own thing, for both good and ill. One part sequel and one part spinoff, XO, Kitty focuses on Katherine Song Covey (Anna Cathcart), the precocious younger sister of Lura Jean (Lana Candor). Having used her nosy love of matchmaking to unite her sister with her dream boyfriend Peter (Noah Centineo), Kitty is now determined to step into the spotlight as the star of her own romance.

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Lonely with her sisters out of the house and frustrated by the long-distance between her and her sort-of boyfriend Dae (Minyeong Choi), whom she met on a family vacation to Seoul, South Korea, she decides to take matters into her own hands. Aided by a (truly amazing) PowerPoint presentation, she convinces her dad and step-mom to allow her to attend the prestigious Korean Independent School of Seoul (KISS), the same institution where her late mother Eve once spent a year abroad and at which Dae is now currently a student.

Upon arriving in Seoul, Kitty’s dreams of a magical junior year are dashed when she discovers Dae—who didn’t know about her plans to join him at KISS—is apparently in a relationship with the popular (and rich!) hotel heiress Yuri Han (Gia Kim), and has lied to her about several other key facts of his life. Embarrassed and heartbroken, Kitty is still determined to explore her Korean roots, learn more about her mother’s past, and make her trip halfway around the world about something more substantial than chasing after a boy. And as her story expands beyond her initial quest to reunite with Dae, Kitty begins to build bonds of her own with other characters, including Dae’s kind roommate Q (Anthony Keyvan), the jerkish but hot rich kid Min Ho (Sang Heon Lee), and even new professor Alex (Peter Thurnwald). 

Unlike her sister Lara Jean’s story, which unfolded across a trilogy of two-hour films (and was based on a series of popular novels), Kitty’s tale is spread across a briskly paced ten episodes that follow a more ensemble-esque dramedy format. And, while Kitty’s romantic life (or lack thereof) is a certainly major plot point, the series is primarily a coming-of-age story, as our young heroine, who initially arrives in Korea so confident and self-assured of her goals, begins to understand that a big part of growing up is learning that a lot of your preconceived notions about yourself and the world around you are just straight up wrong. Kitty’s determination to connect with the mother she never knew by immersing herself in the world where she spent a year abroad gives the series some surprising emotional depth, and the show’s supporting characters are both diverse and appealing.

XO, Kitty’s Seoul setting both provides gorgeous scenery (those cherry blossoms!) and plays an essential role in the larger story the series is telling. It would have been very easy for this show to give little more than vague lip service to Kitty’s biracial heritage, but instead, it takes this aspect of her life and personal history seriously. Characters—save Kitty, who isn’t fluent—effortlessly switch back and forth between English and Korean, share in family-based traditions like Chuseok, and dish about skincare regimens and K-dramas. Differences between American and Korean culture are key drivers of specific plot points, and the show has a decidedly international feel that mirrors that of the school in which it is set.

A teen drama that is actually and unapologetically made for teens—its breezy episodes all clock in at under 35 minutes, a true gift!—XO, Kitty fully embraces the high camp of both young adulthood and the K-dramas that share its narrative roots, from the thrill of first kisses, new crushes, and forbidden attractions to the despair of struggling to keep up with your peers in more advanced classes. The show also realistically wrestles with angsty topics that speak to a modern young audience, from sexuality, queerness, and self-acceptance to class issues, financial problems, and complicated parental and familial relationships. And thanks to the series’ longer runtime, we’re allowed to see more of the lives of many of Kitty’s friends and classmates, who are (for the most part) all given desires and worries of their own, and allowed to make plenty of mistakes, the majority of which have nothing to do with Kitty.

To be fair, XO, Kitty does have its fair share of awkward moments, ranging from public humiliation and miscommunications to slapstick physical comedy. (At one point Kitty falls into a tower of cupcakes, at another she accidentally lights herself on fire, while lactose intolerance plays a key role among various guests at a dinner party.) Yet, despite the occasionally silly, often clumsy nature of these youthful escapades, the show never makes its young characters feel like a joke, seeming to intuitively understand that these embarrassing interludes are all part and parcel of the heightened emotional experience that is being a teenager. (After all, don’t we all have that one stupid moment from high school that we still remember with horror well into our middle age? Be honest.)

Cathcart remains perfectly cast as Kitty, now slightly older and more mature, but no less chaotic young woman whose effervescent charm glows so brightly that it’s easy to understand why people are consistently drawn to her even when they’re determined not to be. Her spunky forthrightness and dedication to making the best of her KISS experience no matter what curveballs are thrown her way help ground the show during its more ridiculous moments. But it is Kim who nearly steals the show right out from under her, giving Yuri fascinatingly rich layers that go well beyond the stuck-up rich girl she initially appears to be. 

Over its final episodes, XO, Kitty fully leans into its soapiest tendencies, as family mysteries unravel, long-held secrets are revealed, new relationships form, and surprising crushes spring up, all with varying degrees of resolution by the time the final credits roll. (Someone somewhere at Netflix is clearly banking on a second season.) But thanks to its brisk pace, likable characters, and consistently propulsive plot (another drama really is always just around the corner), I don’t think anyone would mind coming back for another semester. 

All 10 episodes of  XO, Kitty premiere Thursday, May 18th on Netflix.

Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.

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