SPOILER ALERT: This post contains spoilers for “XO, Kitty,” now streaming on Netflix.
Jenny Han’s 2014 novel “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” first introduces readers to Kitty Song Covey as the mischievous younger sister of main protagonist Lara Jean. Kitty, a precocious pre-teen, harbors a penchant for instigating drama — an affinity that sets off the chain of events leading to the fake-but-eventually-real relationship between her sister and love interest Peter Kavinsky. Memorialized by Anna Cathcart in the 2018 film version of the book — which spawned two sequels and launched the careers of Lana Condor and Noah Centineo, who played the leads — Kitty often serves as the comic relief, offsetting Lara Jean’s careful romantic idealism. But in spinoff series “XO, Kitty,” which premiered on the streaming service on Thursday, the little sister becomes the star, and Cathcart steps into the spotlight.
Cathcart tells Variety that conversations about a possible Kitty spinoff began when she was shooting the third “To All the Boys” film. “I thought they were joking,” she says. “They were like, ‘No, we’re serious, we want this to be a real thing.’” She says that many different ideas about the show were tossed around, but the main synopsis always stayed the same: “It was always going to be Kitty in high school, and I think that could have been manifested in different ways.”
Now an intrepid high school junior, Kitty applies for and receives a scholarship to the Korean International School of Seoul (also known as KISS), which is the school her mother went to — and the one her boyfriend Dae (Choi Min-young) attends. After successfully convincing her father (John Corbett) and stepmother (Sarayu Rao) to let her go, Kitty jets off to Korea on a mission to better understand her heritage and surprise Dae. But when she shows up to the school, she quickly discovers that she’s signed up for much more than what she’d planned.
The show tosses Kitty into the world of international school and exemplifies its multicultural focus not only in location, but through its dialogue, needle drops and narrative inspiration. Characters switch seamlessly between Korean and English; in one scene, a student speaks Greek, then French, then English in rapid succession. With various K-pop songs sprinkled throughout the series and the soapy parallels to K-dramas (“Boys Over Flowers,” anyone?), “XO, Kitty” pushes itself into territory that further indicates the prevalence of Korean culture as a global phenomenon. The show — which also features “Lost” star Yunjin Kim as KISS’ head of school — releases one month after Netflix’s public commitment to spending $2.5 billion on South Korean film and TV production over the next four years. In January, the service also announced that 34 new Korean titles would debut on the platform in 2023 — its biggest-ever lineup.
It’s also a testament to Han’s influence as a novelist-turned-showrunner and her intelligence in crafting a story that will appeal to audiences enthralled by “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” — and any new viewers interested in Korean culture. After serving as an executive producer on the “To All the Boys” films, Han donned the showrunner cap for her hugely successful “The Summer I Turned Pretty” Amazon series and serves as co-showrunner, alongside Sascha Rothchild, on “XO, Kitty” as well. Cathcart, who has worked with the writer for over five years now, says she appreciates how Han is attuned to the minutiae of adolescence. “The details of how a teenage girl’s brain thinks and how it works and the things that we notice and overthink is so relatable and so true to my experience in different ways, and it’s so special that Jenny can capture that,” she says.
Han’s storytelling also often catalyzes conversations surrounding representation and identity. “XO, Kitty” is no different: At a screening prior to the show’s release, the cast talked about how their various upbringings influenced their own ideas of representation.
Anthony Keyvan, who plays Q in the show, is Iranian and Filipino. “It wasn’t until ‘XO, Kitty’ came where I felt like I was playing a character that authentically represented myself,” he said during the Q&A. Keyvan also had conversations with Han and Rothchild to further develop his character. “It was the first time I had felt like writers really wanted that authenticity and were willing to change things in the script for me.”
Gia Kim, who plays Yuri in the show, bounced between Korea and Hong Kong growing up. (Funnily enough, she and Sang Heon Lee, who plays Min Ho, are siblings in real life). “When I watch Korean dramas, I am represented by everyone, so I never thought about it,” she said. “But obviously, when I watch Hollywood movies, it’s different. It’s Hollywood — like, white people.” She added: “When I moved to this country is when I was learning about what it means to be a person of color, because I didn’t even know I was a person of color until I came to this country. I was like, ‘Whoa, okay, I have a new identity now.’”
For Cathcart, who is Irish and Chinese and grew up in Canada, her most memorable fan interaction came when a viewer of “To All the Boys” expressed excitement over “seeing a white dad trying to learn the culture and teach it to their children and that unique experience of a mixed race family.”
“Hearing her say that was really cool, because it made me think of all the different mixed kids and Asian kids watching this and how it can feel so, so specific to you,” she says.
The show also gives Kitty the space to sort through her own love life and, through a burgeoning crush on Yuri, begin the process of deciphering her own queerness.
“I was really excited that we were going to be exploring that storyline,” Cathcart says. “Something I’m very proud of the show and proud of Kitty for is that she’s letting herself have the space to figure that out and to not put pressure on herself and know that she might not get to an easy conclusion.”
“It’s a process,” she adds. “That’s part of what makes it beautiful…She’s never apologizing for how she’s feeling, she’s never apologizing for who she is or what she’s going through, which is something we were all very aware of.”
“XO, Kitty” also provides a realistic view of the contrasting cultural attitudes toward people who identify as queer. While Kitty’s father is supportive of her, Yuri faces off against her own mother, who intervenes when she discovers that Yuri has a girlfriend. It’s an attitude reflective of Korean culture, one that Choi noted during the Q&A, saying that he wanted “XO, Kitty” to spark conversations among Korean viewers.
“In Korea, LGBTQ culture is not even talked [about] and known,” he said. “I want people to just know and think about it…Keep the conversation happening.”
As significant as it is for the conversations that it sparks, “XO, Kitty” is, at its heart, about growing up.
“The core theme of growing up and not having it figured out and struggling to navigate it and figure out what things look like for us specifically — and working through all these big feelings — that can feel very daunting,” Cathcart says. “Our show definitely shows that that is a universal thing. And it doesn’t really matter what city you’re living in, or what family you come from — of course, it’s going to be very different to every individual. But at the root of it, a lot of those feelings, a lot of those stories are so similar and can be very connecting, when you realize that other people might be going through similar things as you do.”