Much of the buzz (fairly or not) going into Amazon Prime’s release of Paper Girls would tell you that the show’s a lot like Stranger Things. And granted, I get this. The show’s first trailer went there, and why wouldn’t the marketing team want to project that vibe, right after the Netflix juggernaut unfurled the squelch-filled Season 4? We’ve got kids riding bikes like Cadillacs in a fictional town and 1980s music and a very mysterious something going on, dark forces and whatnot. On paper, Paper Girls sounds like an amped-up version because there’s some immediate time travel as a bonus. And there’s Jason Mantzoukas as some kind of cosmic, vaguely-wizard-esque time dude, and you can see where things are going here, other than the Wizard of Oz similarities. This is akin to Stranger Things, but right off the bat, it sounds even stranger.
Here’s the thing, though. This show is actually not very nostalgic, aside from the soundtrack, and it doesn’t look back fondly upon the 1980s. Ronald Reagan references (and eerie cameos) abound, not in a good way, and when our protagonists get swept up in a war between travelers and find themselves far from home, the unappealing side of the 1980s spirit (which is at times bleak) comes with them. And the future is no less welcoming, but these literal paper-delivery girls are not alone. They have each other, and they’ve also got their future selves. It’s a trip, man, and I’m about to make a comparison that some people will actually laugh at when they see this show.
Yes, Stranger Things fans will probably like this show. Fans of Netflix’s Dark will like it even more. Fans of the celebrated Paper Girls comic (by Brian K. Vaughn) will delight in seeing the pages come to life. But what I’m also feeling — not in terms of plot but in spirit — is some Yellowjackets flavor. Granted, it’s a very, very tame aspect of the Showtime series’ that’s dancing in the corner, and Paper Girls is much different in plot than Yellowjackets. There’s no plane crash and no abundance of gross-out cult sh*t, but the four protagonists’ drive to survive in extraordinary circumstances, together and separately and both in the past and in the future, makes these two projects at least second cousins. Also, both shows tangle with a coming-of-age theme but kick through that well-treaded, makeshift wall to become greater than the sum of their parts.
However, this show takes a much more sentimental and less cynical view on female friendship than most of Yellowjackets did, but enough wiggle room exists to appreciate how, really, the conflict in this show can be witnessed in these girls’ inward and outward fights with themselves at other points in the timeline.
I couldn’t resist tossing a comic book image into this review because this is one project where familiarity with the subject matter will help, but it’s not necessary, to help with the shock value of certain visual spectacles as the girls fight to save the future. There are plenty of “is this really happening?” moments, like when there’s a massive f*cking robot in view. Some of those effects are wonky, as are CGI effects of gross bugs and so on. All of that is sheer spectacle, but it doesn’t distract from what’s really going on, which is the vivid rendering of each girl’s inner life. We really get to see inside of their souls and how they experience the future while reckoning with the past. And yes, the four protagonists are tweens, but that’s incidental, and this is no mere coming-of-age tale.
There are a lot of moving parts here that I would do a disservice to try and describe. Again, the paper girls (portrayed by Fina Strazza, Riley Lai Nelet, Camryn Jones, and Sofia Rosinsky) get volleyed from 1988 (within the spooky after-moments of Halloween, while they’re only trying to do their jobs) into 2019. One of the girls’ future selves is portrayed by Ali Wong, and let’s just say that this character’s future is not bright. She’s doing better than at least one of the other future versions, but oddly enough, the younger version of the character has a much better grasp on how to tackle life. And Sofia Rosinsky’s Mac (the first paper girl in town) isn’t as abrasive as expected, although there’s time for that later. I’ll just say that Mac is more likable than not, and at least she gets something out of the future (rocking out to a key Danzig tune).
In confronting the future, these girls transform into formidable women, fast. They’re well-drawn characters, and not mere archetypes, who command attention for their multi-dimensional rendering. What they experience in the future, both while attempting to save the world amid warring factions, turns deeply personal, and it is at times heartbreaking. Imagine trying to navigate adolescence while also dealing with the harsh realities of adulthood. It’s enough to make anyone collapse into a ball. You and I would likely be overcome by the stress of it all. These young ladies don’t have that luxury, and not only are they dealing with intergenerational stress within themselves, they’re breaking down the boxes that society would like to place them. And they’re wrestling with how to fix the future while jousting with what could happen if they tweak the past.
More than any of the spectacle or sci-fi themes — which do not always flow smoothly or conceivably or in a visually cohesive way in this show — the real attractions of Paper Girls are the paper girls themselves. There’s the new girl, the gamer, the somewhat misunderstood tough cookie, and so on. They arrive from vastly different cultures and backgrounds and come together with some resistance and difficulty, and a few of them are very tough nuts to crack, but they’re strong enough as entities to make the show worth enduring its weaker points — like the secondary characters who come and go and don’t always make sense, and the fact that this show’s emotionally harrowing at times. Yet I’m going to part with this: the Stranger Things comparison isn’t entirely fair, but the show will hit with a similar audience, maybe not with the same volume of viewers but with ones who are equally enthused. Time travel’s sorely overdone on TV lately, and so are kids on bikes, but this show does both equally well. You’ll probably dig it.
Amazon Prime’s ‘Paper Girls’ is currently streaming.