‘To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before’ Spinoff Makes the Grade

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Netflix has struggled to create another teen romantic comedy as strong as To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, which blew up online and garnered a massive following after its August 2018 premiere. Following that summer success—which also brought the equally pleasant, office-set rom-com Set It Up to the platform—the streamer tried to capitalize on Noah Centineo’s charm, with films like Sierra Burgess is a Loser and The Perfect Date. It followed up those uninspiring releases with splashy teen movies like He’s All That and Work It, neither of which worked either. Even the two sequels to the original To All the Boys weren’t quite as good.

Could XO, Kitty, a To All the Boys spinoff series following Lara Jean Covey’s (Lana Condor) younger sister Kitty (Anna Cathcart), break Netflix’s rom-com curse? Seeing how the show brings back To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before author Jenny Han, there seemed to be a big chance. But it turns out that XO, Kitty, which premieres today on Netflix, can’t drum up off-the-charts chemistry like To All the Boys and lacks Centineo-levels of charisma—yet the premise is just enticing enough to make it worth the watch.

Our Kitty is all grown up since the last time we saw her. She’s now a high schooler, but she is just as loud (if not louder) and stubborn as she was back in middle school. After visiting Korea with her family in the third To All the Boys installment, Kitty has developed a long-distance relationship with Dae (Minyeong Choi). Dae is sweet and willing to keep their relationship going—he’s a keeper!—but Kitty is struggling to stay afloat in this whole LDR sitch. Why not make life easier and move to Korea, to be closer to him? After all, Kitty’s mother, who passed away when she was a baby, went to the Korean Independent School of Seoul (KISS, an acronym that made me giggle every time I heard it in the show). What a coincidence—that’s where Dae goes, too.

Kitty whips together a PowerPoint presentation, to convince her father (John Corbett) that she needs to attend KISS. She reveals that she secured the last spot at the prestigious international boarding school. It’s fate! It’s destiny! She’s meant to be with Dae and, of course, Dad obliges with little-to-no hesitation. Except that, when Kitty sets foot in Korea, it’s hard to get the ball rolling with Dae—because he has another girlfriend: Yuri (Gia Kim), the daughter of a wealthy hotel mogul and the headmaster of KISS.

No, Dae didn’t cheat on Kitty. The audience knows something that Kitty doesn’t, a juicy twist in what turns out to be a tangled, A Midsummer Night’s Dream-esque love story. Yuri is only “dating” Dae because she’s trying to cover up her real romance with a girl named Juliana (Regan Aliyah), who has been expelled. Fearful that her stuck-up parents will disown her if they discover her true sexuality, Yuri specifically uses Dae as a beard because she knows he needs help with his tuition. Although Kitty is left in the dark about this plan, Dae tries to clue her into the fact that he still has feelings for her with small moments of affection—proving his relationship is fake without outright saying it—to reignite their summer flame. Too bad XO, Kitty is a repetitive comedy of errors, and every time Dae attempts to confess his feelings, someone distracts him away from the conversation.

This technique—which feels like a Diabolus ex Machina, in which new crises are introduced by a narrative “higher power” to continuously inflict pain on the protagonists—gets tiring over time. Whenever two characters are having a heart-to-heart, be it Dae and Kitty or Yuri and her mother, someone else is forced into the situation to awkwardly break things up so that everyone is in constant miscommunication. The entire plot hinges on these invasions of privacy. Almost every chapter in the 10-episode season features a conflict that’s caused by someone butting in on two other characters’ important conversation.

But to some viewers, that silliness is part of the appeal of XO, Kitty, which manages to introduce a cheesy tone that had no place in the earnest To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before movies. Watching XO, Kitty—which introduces Kitty to not one, not two, not three, but four love interests over the course of one 10-episode season—feels a lot like strapping in for an episode of Emily in Paris or even And Just Like That…, two similarly goofy serialized rom-coms. Maybe that’s only because it’s a similar fish-out-of-water story and John Corbett, respectively, is involved. Still, XO, Kitty has that lighthearted campiness that isn’t too overbearing or forced.

The chaotic number of love interests XO, Kitty throws at its protagonist even ends up as a positive for the series, because each episode becomes more unpredictable than the last. Kitty has crushes on girls and guys, on enemies and exes, on her neighbors and strangers she meets at parties. Not only does this feel like an extremely accurate representation of a teenage girl and her many crushes, but it’s also a real delight to watch. The series veers away from the traditional, more predictable rom-com set-up, with a storybook ending and one perfect love interest, heading toward a more chaotic story of mismatched couples instead. In doing so, XO, Kitty loses a bit of the rom-com appeal, but the show makes up for it with exciting new twists.

In the Jenny Han cinematic universe, XO, Kitty lies somewhere in between To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and Prime Video’s The Summer I Turned Pretty. The acting (with a stellar performance by Anna Cathcart as Kitty, though she’s missing the connection with her two sisters, who are absent from all of this spinoff) and storylines are nearly on par with Netflix’s original bright and fun concept for Han’s TATBILB universe. It contributes something new with the KISS element, watching Kitty fumble her way around Seoul a la Emily Cooper in Paris. None of the romantic pairings are quite as big a draw as Peter and Lara Jean—but again, who could beat that hot tub scene?

Nevertheless, any fans of Han’s work will be as pleased with XO, Kitty as they are with her other adaptations—perhaps even more so, considering the series is brand new material. XO, Kitty lovingly portrays its teenage girl protagonist as three-dimensional, akin to both The Summer I Turned Pretty and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, which is refreshing in and of itself. The concept is, indeed, preposterous (the likelihood that a teenage girl gets away with an international move to be with her very first boyfriend is slim)—but XO, Kitty trusts its leading lady enough to run away and have a great time. After ending on a cliffhanger (no spoilers!), Kitty is primed to really go wild in Korea, if the show is granted a Season 2.

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