When Prime Video launched the first teaser trailer for Paper Girls, many who were unfamiliar with Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang‘s source material were ready to brush it off as the streaming service’s answer to Stranger Things. The similarities were there, an 80s-set adventure following a group of Midwestern middle schoolers on bikes battling something otherworldly. Yes, that sounds familiar, but that doesn’t even scratch the service of what Paper Girls really is. There’s time travel, giant robots, futuristic societies, and an interdimensional villain played by Jason Mantzoukas, but all this sci-fi insanity feels like a mere backdrop to what is truly a deeply human story about growing up and learning to face our insecurities head-on.
Paper Girls kicks off on November 1, 1988, as four young paper girls embark on what was supposed to be just another work day. There’s the new girl Erin (Riley Lai Nelet), the tomboy Mac (Sofia Rosisnky), the brainy overachiever Tiffany (Camryn Jones), and the private school-girl KJ (Fina Strazza), each carrying their own set of struggles, and their larger-than-life personalities often lead to them butting heads. However, the first episode doesn’t take long before things go sideways, as the four girls notice the sky has turned hot pink and everyone but them has seemingly vanished. After a series of unexpected and surreal events, the girls suddenly find themselves in the year 2019 and are caught in the middle of a high-tech war between two groups of time travelers. With nowhere else to go, the girls soon come face to face with the grown-up Erin (Ali Wong) and it is from this moment when Paper Girls really starts to show its true colors.
Paper Girls works best when confronting the more grounded and emotional elements of familial drama, sexuality, loss, and self-love. As the girls encounter each of their future selves, we begin to learn more about the burdens they feel they carry. Erin, who is Chinese, had always tried to act as the leader in her family after the death of her father, especially as her mother can barely speak English. It’s through this storyline involving both Erins that we learn of her close bond with her younger sister Missy (Jessika Van) and what becomes of it. Mac, the most rebellious of the group, grapples with coming from a broken home, while Tiffany and KJ struggle with the weight of their parents’ massive expectations.
It’s these quieter and subtler moments when Paper Girls proves to be the most engaging. Even after the first episode, we still don’t know too much about our four lead characters, but it is through the next seven that the series pulls the curtains back and allows the audience to really empathize and relate. When those sci-fi elements kick in, however, the series starts to show its cracks. It may be easy to complain about the VFX work, but it wouldn’t have been nearly as noticeable if the moments of heavy exposition were delivered in a way that feels more balanced. All of this causes the pacing to feel a bit off, and despite most of the episodes running under 50 minutes, the series can at times feel start and go, especially in the latter four episodes.
When the series’ central antagonists are eventually brought in, they often feel like an afterthought. The threat that they’re supposed to have is never really felt, it’s no fault of the actors, as both Mantzoukas and Adina Porter breathe a lot of life into their respective roles, but once the credits roll at the end of the finale, they ultimately feel like afterthoughts and the way their characters are incorporated feel representative of what didn’t work as much in the first season compared to its strengths.
The four young performers at the center of the series are excellent in their respective roles, Rosisnky and Jones each explode with immense amounts of charisma and personality, while Nelet and Strazza turn in more subdued work that makes the arcs of their characters feel all the more impactful. Their dynamic is different from what some viewers may expect; unlike Stranger Things, where the young protagonists at the start are already friends, the first season of Paper Girls attempts to show our protagonists learning to trust and love each other even if they all live vastly different lives. The fact that the series goes out of its way to show how accepting the girls are of each of their differences feels refreshing and compelling.
In addition to our four leads, the adult ensemble also impresses. Wong, who is most known for her stand-up and roles in comedies like Always Be My Maybe, proves that she is more than capable of delivering some strong dramatic work. She’s not the confident character who’s dropping one-liners left and right; instead, she is a character who is drowning in her own insecurities and guilt, and it is through her scenes with the four leads that the audience begins to become attached to her. By the time her character’s arc concludes, some will find themselves wanting more of her presence. Newcomer Sekai Abenì is another major stand-out as the adult Tiffany, giving a complex performance juggling an extroverted and electric personality with a tinge of jadedness. Other solid presences include Cliff Chamberlain as Dylan, Mac’s grown-up older brother who serves as a father figure to her in the second and third episodes, and Nate Corddry as Larry, an eccentric recluse who has been preparing for the rifts in time.
Paper Girls has much more in common with something like Back to the Future or even The Umbrella Academy than it does with Stranger Things. At its core, Paper Girls is a coming-of-age story that anybody can see themselves in. It is a story about family, perseverance, confronting our insecurities, and embracing what makes each person different all in the middle of an at times overly ambitious story of time travel.
Paper Girls is now streaming exclusively on Prime Video.