American teenage rom-com meets Korean drama in Netflix’s ‘XO, Kitty’

May 31, 2023, 9:54 p.m.

The past few years have seen a debate about whether the romantic comedy (or rom-com) genre will ever be popular again. A beacon of hope came in 2018 with the adaptation of Jenny Han’s young adult novel “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” which premiered on Netflix with great success. And with that, Netflix decided to continue the story in the newly released series “XO, Kitty,” which focuses on the romance of the youngest Covey-Song sister, Kitty. 

“XO Kitty” plays into beloved tropes of the rom-com genre while also keeping it fresh with fun twists. The way it perfectly blends the American high school rom-com with elements of Korean dramas makes it stand out in comparison to other new romantic comedies at the moment. The chemistry of the actors keeps audiences begging for more of not only the romances but also the platonic and familial relationships as well.

The series follows Kitty as she makes her way to South Korea for a new adventure. About to start her junior year of high school, Kitty has applied to a Korean international school without her family’s permission. She did so to meet her long-distance boyfriend, Dae, and find a cultural connection with her deceased Korean mother. After her father and stepmother agree to let her go, she continues her quest for romance and identity in the Korean Independent School of Seoul (KISS) — a preppy international school in South Korea.

Impressively, “XO, Kitty” does not fall into the “Emily in Paris” narrative trap of an American “fixing” the foreign country to which she moves. Kitty herself is half Korean, with little knowledge of her heritage. The show frames her as someone who is always learning and adapting to the new environment, making mistakes along the way.

The narrative is, therefore, more focused on her learning about her mom’s native culture and connecting with the people around her. One episode sees Kitty working to bring the school together to celebrate the South Korean holiday Chuseok, a harvest holiday where people visit the graves of ancestors.

“XO, Kitty” deftly combines K-drama tropes — such as wealth and reputation as significant roadblocks to successful romantic relationships — with new twists on American rom-com tropes. One of those twists is genuine, not tokenized, LGBTQIA+ characters. Each of them are not solely defined by their gender or sexuality but also have stories personal to them. This contrasts with the “To All The Boys” trilogy, where the character Lucas is portrayed as a stereotypical gay best friend.

“XO, Kitty” has three core LGBT characters, all portrayed with the care and dignity of traditional rom-com heterosexual characters. The drama does not sensationalize their identity but rather allows these teenage characters to explore their identities as part of their growth journeys.

For instance, the audience watches Kitty as she crushes on a female character. This moment is filmed in a similar manner to the scenes of Kitty fawning over Dae; slow motion is used to highlight Kitty’s admiration for them. After this initial scene, though, we see Kitty trying to understand her blossoming sexuality. The process feels awkward, exciting and new, which is unique for the depiction of queer women of color in popular culture.

A notable flaw in this series is lead actress Anna Cathcart’s portrayal of Kitty. Cathcart is a competent actress but lacks the same level of depth and natural charm as Lana Candor, who starred as Kitty’s sister Lara Jean in “To All The Boys.” This means certain important emotional beats, such as when Kitty breaks up with Dae and tells him that he was “the perfect first boyfriend,” fall flat.

Cathcart’s performance here feels far too rehearsed, which makes the scene awkward and unnatural. However, with the time granted in a continuing series, Cathcart will find her way to tugging more effectively on our heartstrings in key moments.

Cathcart’s flaws are compensated by her palpable chemistry with the other actors on the show, especially her multiple and conflicting love interests. After all, it’s not easy to convince an audience that one can have three different love interests at the same time.

The TV series format provides viewers with one major advantage over film: it allows more time for viewers to live with the characters as they grow. Overall, “XO, Kitty” is an entertaining and fun watch, especially for a night-in. Watching various shenanigans unfold for Kitty and her friends at KISS inspires heartwarming laughter.

Editor’s Note: This article is a review and includes subjective thoughts, opinions and critiques.

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