Paper Girls premieres July 29 on Prime Video.
Paper Girls is the streaming series adaptation of Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang’s recent Image Comics hit of the same name. The Prime Video series faithfully carries over the core story about four paper delivery girls from the suburbs of Cleveland who stumble into a time-traveling opus that hurdles them through several years, starting in 1988 with detours to 1999 and 2019. While it’s been compared to Stranger Things, the tone of the series actually aligns more with Rob Reiner’s 1986 classic Stand By Me, just with a primarily female cast of characters. And it’s those girls in the title who are the standouts of this adaptation, embodied by four young actresses who are all exceptional in selling the realness of their characters and the growing relationships between them. Unfortunately, they often have to overcome some very slow pacing and a time-travel arc that feels vague and less than propulsive.
Season 1 consists of eight episodes, with the first one, “Growing Pains,” doing a lot of the heavy lifting to establish tone, relationships, and basic mythology. Set in Stony Stream, a suburb outside of Cleveland, Ohio, Erin Tieng (Riley Lai Nelet) wakes at 4:30 am for her first day as a carrier for the The Cleveland Preserver newspaper. Determined but nervous, she assures her Chinese mother that she’ll be fine as she sets out by bike. It’s when she’s threatened by a male neighbor for stealing his paper that fellow carrier Tiffany Quilken (Camryn Jones) appears to defend her and then dispense with some tips and tricks of their trade. The two end up connecting with other paper girls – tough girl Mac Coyle (Sofia Rosinsky) and rich girl KJ Brandman (Fina Strazza) – forming a loose alliance against the older teen boys harassing them in the wake of Hell Night. When Tiff’s new walkie talkie is stolen, the girls go to a construction site to get it back and the weirdness begins.
The sky turns an ominous fuschia color, which is straight out of Chiang’s sequential art, and the gang holes up in Mac’s empty house to figure out what’s happening. As the girls wait, they try to navigate the differences in their disparate socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds. Mac, for instance, initially lets loose with the casual racism she’s gotten from her neglectful blue collar dad, while Erin is reticent in opening up about her Chinese-speaking mom because of the lack of acceptance from her bigoeted neighbors. Tiff is the assured intellect of the group while KJ is the peacemaker. When an exterior searchlight freaks them out, an accidental shooting happens, which forces them to head to the hospital. But they’re intercepted by two facially disfigured men in robes who force them into a capsule that dumps them all in 2019.
Observing the men get killed by soldiers in white, futuristic uniforms, the four girls realize the dire straits they’re suddenly in and they run to Erin’s house, where they meet Older Erin (Ali Wong) inside, who is just as confused about everything as they are. But after the initial shock, she allows them to stay as they try to piece together what is happening, and why.
As with all time-travel tales, the rules and minutiae of the premise change based on the individual needs of the story. Paper Girls spends the majority of the season allowing the girls, Older Erin, and others to piece together the specifics of how it happens and determining that it’s a by-product of a ongoing “time war” in the future between the Old Watch, who wants no unauthorized time travel to retain one pure timeline, and STF Underground, who are rebels trying to peel the corrupt power away from those in charge. It’s fairly typical sci-fi stuff, which makes it the least interesting element of the series. However, it drives the plot of the story, so how much you connect to the time mythology is going to be directly related to how patient you are with the show’s slow drip of discovery that comes over the course of eight hours, and how much you really love time-travel paradox stories.
What’s a lot easier to connect to are the four girls. Each year they get stuck in gives the storyline a bit of a reboot as they have to band together anew to get resourceful about keeping themselves alive and figuring out how to get home. And since they’re only 12 years old, there’s also the constant temptation for any of them to find their families, and older selves, to get a glimpse at their futures. All of them succumb and end up relatively disappointed in how their future selves have handled their lives. That translates into some great scenes of existential confrontation, as the optimism of youth butts heads against the realities of age and regret. It’s in those moments, which are peppered judiciously throughout the season, that the time-travel story is at its most interesting. Because the girls are pretty ruthless in their assessments of their destinies, the series remains clear-eyed in its grounded vibe, never delving into the potentially maudlin or cloying – and that’s refreshing.
The cast is also excellent. All four young actresses give performances that are entirely authentic to their ages and their origin era. Each straddles that ineffable line of teen girls who are still clinging to some of their innocence, like not knowing what to do when one of them gets their period, but also coming across like old souls. And that’s only augmented by their time-hopping adventures. When one of them wearily says, “I’m just tired” in the last episode of the season, that’s a line entirely earned and owned by each character. The actresses playing their older selves are also great, with Ali Wong palpably carrying Older Erin’s failures on her person and then shedding it more and more as she comes to protect the girls. Older Tiff (Sekai Abenì), too, is a delight to watch, especially in scenes where she’s pitted against Camryn Jones as the two brainiacs ably spar with one another. Theirs are some of the best scenes in the back half of the season.
As mentioned before, the time-travel antics, which include a Terminator-esque Old Watch soldier (Adina Porter) and Larry (Nate Corddry), a nebulous STF soldier the girls find in their orbit repeatedly, don’t really move the radar in terms of overarching interest. There’s also some out-of-nowhere tech elements that feel like they were lifted from Pacific Rim and disappear as quickly as they show up. Jason Mantzoukas is a welcome presence who adds some lightness to the piece but he’s essentially in a cameo role that needs a lot more fleshing out if more seasons are picked up.
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Overall, the series mostly suffers from a lack of propulsion. There is certainly a lot of expansion from the comic book in regards to the lives of the four girls, which is welcome. But the episodes are almost too indulgent when it comes to digging into their lives, especially in 1999 and 2019. The fifth episode does have a welcome burst of CGI action and some major stakes playing out, but the series returns to a simmer until the finale. It’s always a tough call for showrunners to gauge how quickly a new series should burn through story, but in this case, Christopher C. Rogers and his writers could have been more ambitious in getting us deeper into the lore, while adding those emotional moments of character building. Less patient viewers might find Paper Girls too meandering, or derivative of other time-travel stories, and they wouldn’t be wrong. But there’s still plenty to latch onto that makes the ride worthwhile.