Paradoxes of time travel: then hot right now. In the past year alone, timeline surfing has played a major role in TV shows. Loki and The Umbrella Academy at Russian doll and The Time Traveler’s Wife (and, of course, the eternal race Doctor Who).
The latest property to jump into the proverbial phone booth is Prime Video’s sci-fi drama paper girls. But its origins actually predate the current craze: it’s based on a comic book series that debuted in 2015, written by Brian K. Vaughan (whose Y: The Last Man also recently received the TV treatment) and illustrated by Cliff Chiang.
However, the small screen version of paper girls doesn’t feel quite original. With its central cast of ’80s tweens and energetic mix of action, drama, and offbeat humor, the series often feels like it’s riding the same wave as stranger things. That said, it can be a hell of a good time, with some incisive observations about what it’s like to be a girl in the big, wide world, whatever the era.
Created by Stephany Folsom (toy story 4, as well as the next one from Prime The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power), paper girls centers on four 12-year-old kids delivering newspapers in a Cleveland suburb in 1988. There’s Erin (Riley Lai Nelet), the shy neighborhood newbie; Mac (Sofia Rosinsky), a hard-rock tomboy with a big chip on her shoulder; Tiffany (Camryn Jones), a budding genius who dreams of going to MIT; and KJ (Fina Strazza), a private school kid struggling with the weight of parental expectations.
The foursome’s life quickly takes a pear shape when the sky above their neighborhood takes on an ominous hue of neon pink. They soon find themselves transported to 2019 and caught in the middle of a war between two futuristic factions of time travelers. The girls head to Erin’s house, where she comes face to face with herself in her 40s (portrayed with fragile pathos by stand-up favorite Ali Wong). As they are drawn deeper into the surreality of their situation, they are chased by a sinister time-traveling enforcer, played with eerie magnetism by Adina Porter (American Horror Story, The 100), and form a reluctant alliance with a scrappy rebel named Larry (For all mankindby Nate Corddry).
The show Is mix thoughtful character work and wry humor with conceptual sci-fi, but the results are mixed. paper girls struggles to convey the stakes of the larger plot, leading to lots of awkward exposition and futuristic jargon, the meaning of which you forget as soon as you hear it. (“Why does every stupid thing have some kind of stupid name?” Mac grunts at one point. We couldn’t agree more.)
But even though it’s hard to care about the big stuff, paper girlsThe commitment to its emotional stakes makes for compelling viewing. The newest and most fascinating aspect of the series watches our central tweens meet future versions of themselves. It’s a fantasy we’ve all entertained at some point: if you had the chance to talk to a past or a future, what would you say to it? Throughout the season, this question is explored in such a way as to anchor the story in deep reality. What do you do if you are disappointed in who you have become, or if you discover buried truths about your family or yourself? How does self-confidence or self-loathing show up when you have a second you bounce off?
Like all speculative fiction worth its salt, paper girls understands that the implications of the otherworldly and mundane can be equally overwhelming. When one of the girls gets her first period, it leads to one of the show’s funniest — and, for anyone with a womb, painfully relatable — scene: four pre-teen girls who faced off against beam-wielding mercenaries are completely baffled by the mechanics of a tampon. In another, one of the characters bonds with the middle-aged version of his big brother to the tune of “Mother” from Danzig. (By the way, it should be mentioned that the soundtrack is absolutely slamming, with artists ranging from LCD Soundsystem to Whitney Houston to New Order hitting the deck.)
Despite everything going on around them, the show never loses its focus on the four kids we started with and how they relate to – and don’t – relate to each other. It’s always a risk to put an epic story on the shoulders of child actors, but all four do an admirable job of tackling the series’ complexities. A particular highlight is Strazza, whose KJ has the most subtle emotional arc of the season. In adults-On the other side, keep an eye out for the charismatic Sekai Abenì, who makes her screen debut as an older version of Tiff. We have a feeling that she is about to escape.
paper girls walks the line between riveting and derivative, smart and simplistic, deep and hokey. (The clunky special effects, alas, do the series a disservice.) But ultimately, it’s a very unmanageable slice of summer TV fare that, like its heroes, is going through some early growing pains. And given that it ends on a cliffhanger, we’re keeping our fingers crossed for a second season.