Paper Girls is a sci-fi series about time-traveling teens that’s been made in the Stranger Things mold. But while the Amazon show is filled with big ideas – and the drama resonates emotionally – it isn’t nearly as much fun as the Netflix smash.
When Stranger Things arrived in 2016, it was an immediate hit; audiences the world over connected with the show’s likable kids, and were spellbound by the masterful storytelling.
It’s therefore no surprise other streamers want to get in on the act, and adapting Paper Girls is an obvious choice. The comic – written by Brian K. Vaughan and illustrated by Cliff Chiang – was immediately popular with readers and critics alike, winning multiple awards during its four-year run.
It actually hit shelves before Stranger Things launched, and the similarities are obvious, with both stories thrusting a group of wise-cracking 1980s teens into a sci-fi adventure with potentially world-ending consequences. So you can’t blame Amazon for adapting the material. We just wish they’d given the story and some of the characters a little more attention and care.
What is Paper Girls?
The comic-book version of Paper Girls.
Proceedings kick off in the Cleveland town of Stony Stream, the day after Halloween, aka Hell Day. The year is 1988, but the story won’t stay there.
These opening scenes are straight out of an Amblin movie, with four girls riding their bikes around a small town, delivering copies of the local newspaper while getting themselves in trouble.
That trouble takes them to an abandoned house on the outskirts of Stony Stream, where everything stops, the sky turns pink and purple, and the newly formed gang find themselves thrust into the middle of a war that takes them a long way – and a long time – from home.
Who are the Paper Girls?
The Paper Girls – KJ, Mac, Erin and Tiffany.
The four delivery girls couldn’t be more different, coming from disparate backgrounds, with different values, goals and outlooks. But some are more interesting than others.
Tiffany (Camryn Jones) is an ambitious go-getter with big academic plans, whose smarts might get the group out of their mess. Mac (Sofia Rosinsky) is a tough tomboy from the wrong side of the tracks, who hates her family, resents her lot in life, and just wants a smoke.
Both characters – and the actors playing them – have personality to spare, and the show truly comes to life when they are in action.
Paper Girls is less engaging when proceedings focus on shy and cautious Erin (Riley Lai Nelet), and rich but confused KJ (Fina Strazza). They moan and sulk, their storylines are frequently dull and lifeless, and they mainly serve to slow everything down.
Getting the balance between four characters in a four-hander is the key to making a show like this work, so on that front, Paper Girls fails.
What works, and what doesn’t?
Young Erin having a serious chat with older Erin.
The series is at its best when our heroes come into contact with their older selves, the writers asking big questions about fate and predestination, while also tugging on the heartstrings.
Some characters are happy with who they become, while others are broken by the news. Which leads to guilt, jealousy, bitterness, and burning resentment. Which is the stuff of gripping and juicy drama.
The show is less successful when dealing with time travel itself. There’s fun to be had through 1980s references to Care Bears, Cabbage Patch Kids, and Debbie Gibson. As well as watching kids from that era learn about the Internet, mobile phones, and the trajectory of Whitney Houston’s career.
But what sets all this off – a tussle between two factions convinced they are doing what’s right for the future of humanity – is under-explained, making for a frustrating viewing experience.
So while we hear the how and why – to do with unravelling timelines, course correction and the like – it’s characters telling rather than Paper Girls showing. Which doesn’t make for visually arresting TV.
What really doesn’t work
The perceived villains of the piece – though Paper Girls deals in shades of grey rather than black or white – are also pretty weak, being neither scary, nor particularly interesting. We won’t go into detail to keep this review relatively spoiler-free, but their motives are muddy at best, and confusing at worst.
There are some pacing issues, with Episodes 5 and 6 treading water during the eight-episode run. Though the finale does cleverly bring things full circle.
There’s also some pretty terrible CGI as the series nears its conclusion, with the biggest characters (and when we say big, we mean BIG) looking pretty ropey when they should be the source of the show’s most jaw-dropping moments.
The Verdict – is Paper Girls good?
Paper Girls has a great set-up that doesn’t quite pay-off.
Paper Girls is something of a mixed bag. The set-up is terrific, as who doesn’t love a worm-hole messing with the space-time-continuum? Watching friendships form and develop between the girls also rings convincingly true. And when they meet and interact with their future selves Paper Girls is really something special; those cold, harsh truths are hard to hear but powerful to watch.
That said, there are times when the dialogue – and as a by-product the performances – are stilted. While the villains are underdeveloped, meaning the war that forms the backdrop of the adventure is undercooked, and so stuff just kind-of happens without ever fully drawing us in.
So while this is a solid start to what Amazon doubtless hopes will be an ongoing series, for Paper Girls to truly deliver on the promise of that premise, the girls themselves all need to engage – meaning Erin and KJ must catch up with Tiffany and Mac. While that overarching storyline needs to seem like it matters, so the show itself feels like it matters. Otherwise, Paper Girls is just a pretender to Stranger Things’ crown rather than any kind of actual competition.
Paper Girls is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
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