Katherine Song Covey (Anna Cathcart), aka Kitty, is a Gen Z dream. Since she was introduced six years ago in the “To All The Boys I Loved Before” trilogy, the precocious younger sister to Laura Jean (Lana Condor) and Margot (Janel Parrish) has walked to her own beat. Steadfast, determined and slightly nosey, Kitty’s incessant meddling helped connect LJ to her long-term love Peter (Noah Centineo). With the new spinoff TV series, “XO, Kitty,” the youngest Covey sister is stepping into the spotlight and going after the life she feels she deserves, even if that means getting her heart broken in the process.
From the minds of “To All The Boys” novelist Jenny Han and “Glow” scribe Sascha Rothchild, the series opens in the final hazy days of a Portland summer. Kitty has grown frustrated with the distance in her long-term relationship with Dae (Choi Min-yeong), whom she met several years prior during a family vacation to Seoul, South Korea. With her sisters out of the house, she’s left to twiddle her thumbs with her father, Dan (John Corbett), and step-mom, Trina (Sarayu Blue). However, Kitty refuses to resign herself to a “typical” high school experience. Instead, she convinces her parents to allow her to attend the prestigious Korean Independent School of Seoul (KISS). It’s the same school that Dae attends and where Kitty’s late mother, Eve, spent one magical year of her life.
Cloaked in confidence and self-assuredness, and with a massive yellow suitcase in hand, Kitty travels to Seoul for her junior year to surprise Dae and embark on the dreamy romance she’s always longed for. However, reality catches up with her quickly when she approaches Dae at KISS’ welcome dance, and finds the popular and effervescent Yuri (Gia Kim) on his arm. It’s certainly not the thrilling reconnection she’s been imagining, but in true Kitty fashion, she uses the situation to forge a new path at KISS.
Though humiliated by Dae and Yuri, and given an unfortunate nickname by her new classmates, Kitty is still determined to explore her Korean roots and learn more about her mother’s experiences. As her attention shifts away from Dae, Kitty bonds with Q (Anthony Keyvan), one of Dae’s best friends, and begins uncovering past secrets about her mom and KISS headmaster, Jina Lina (Yunjin Kim) — Yuri’s mother.
“XO, Kitty” has the same components that made “To All The Boys” such a success. Though Kitty’s perspective on life is less light and fluffy than her older sister LJ’s, those same frenzied, overwhelming feelings that come with first-time experiences and trying to take up space in the world are encapsulated in the series’ tone. There are also cheesy and awkward moments, including Kitty nearly getting run over by a car, or causing an implosion of cupcakes in front of her classmates. However, in some ways, these cringeworthy moments are the essence of what makes teenhood so unique.
Cathcart is a more mature Kitty than we’ve seen previously. Still, she manages to weave in the spunky naiveté and inquisitiveness that was so endearing about the character in her pre-teen years. Kitty’s determination and earnestness ground the series when things feel more than a bit chaotic. Moreover, since “XO, Kitty” has more space to work with than a film, the desires and circumstances of the people around her, including her KISS peers, adversaries and friends, all come into focus.
With 10 episodes that run 35 minutes or less, “XO, Kitty” isn’t exactly revelatory television. However, it takes itself seriously enough to unpack issues that are top of mind for teens today. Parental death and a desire to find connections to the past are threaded throughout the show. Divorce, abandonment, financial hardship, encouraging and supportive parents or the lack thereof, queerness, othering, the inadequacies of the American public school system, classism and self-acceptance are all central here. These themes are draped in a touch of teen angst with a massive mystery at the center.
“XO, Kitty” also offers an in-depth look into present-day Seoul and modern-day Korean culture. Shot on location, Kitty and her friends are mostly centered on the KISS campus, but glimpses of the glittering metropolis and even the stunning swatches of nature that include greenery and cherry blossoms just outside the city limits all fill in the frame. The characters, save for Kitty, effortlessly switch back and forth between English and Korean. With references to K-pop, traditions like Chuseok, Korean skincare and K-dramas, it’s refreshing to see an international teen cast showcased outside of the limits of the U.S.
While iconic teen-centered TV series like “Dawson’s Creek” and “One Tree Hill” still echo in the blueprint of the show, especially in Episode 5, “TBH,” the holiday episode, and Episode 7, “TIL,” the Saturday detention episode, this series is very much of this moment. While it ties in those universal elements of what it means to be 17, romance is not the show’s crowning jewel. Instead, “XO, Kitty” is deeply feminist and LGBTQ+ affirming. It highlights a generation determined to see the world while being reflective and thoughtful about understanding what is true and right for themselves.
All 10 episodes of “XO Kitty” drop on Netflix on May 18. Disclosure: Aramide Tinubu formerly worked at Netflix’s Tudum.