Premiering today in full, “Paper Girls” only looks on the cover like Prime Video’s answer to “Stranger Things,” though that image could help it get the viewers it deserves. This is a surprising time travel coming-of-age story that largely does away with nostalgic needle drops and sights, but does make you care about each of the 12-year-old girls and their lives. It’s about how confusing it would be to see your future self, when dealing with the present is already strange enough. Time travel thrills, and even a large robot fight, are more of a giddy bonus.
Based on the graphic novels by Brian K. Vaughan and illustrated by Cliff Chiang, “Paper Girls” takes a wild route to become a time travel adventure, starting off initially as watching four girls work their paper route on Hell Day, the morning after Halloween in 1998. Erin (Riley Lai Nelet), Tiffany (Camryn Jones), Mac (Sofia Rosinsky), and KJ (Fina Strazza) team up when local dirtbag pranksters prove to be getting out of hand—at one point they even steal Tiff’s brand new walkie-talkies. Ready to fight, the girls go to an abandoned, newly built home they suspect to be the losers' hideout. Only, the creeps in there aren’t classmates, but mysterious figures who may or may not have to do with the large pink clouds that start to billow overhead.
In a frantic course of events during the show's gripping pilot, the four girls then find themselves in the 2019 version of their Ohio town of Stony Stream. Not knowing what’s going on, but running in fright from laser fire, they hole up in Erin’s house, only to find an older version of her inside. Young Erin dreamed about running for president and having four kids; this real Erin (played soulfully and with self-deprecating bite by Ali Wong) is a paralegal who lives alone in the home previously owned by her mother. This meeting of the two Erins brings up a lot of feelings between the two, but also launches a journey to look into a certain piece of time travel hardware that confuses them all.
“Paper Girls” is a story that constantly shifts in an exciting fashion, but maintains its gravity while moving through different eras and developments thanks to its great young cast. In sure time, the main four each make memorable characters out of their initially vague writing, and they make the emotional value of these adventures prominent. Sometimes, “Paper Girls” can cut feel like it's cutting corners when trying to get a big emotion out of its coming-of-age revelations (like when Erin learns about what happened to her mom), but the performances often capture the discomfort and confusion from a nightmarish scenario.
Throughout the episodes, the show is also careful to give its characters real dreams and trajectories; it provides them a certain edge. We get that sense from Mac in particular, the most aggressive of the bunch, who talks about her family’s financial struggles as if they were scars that made her tougher, when clearly they eat at her. It’s in her language too, as the show doesn’t shy from how an ’88 tough kid would talk, using certain toxic language like about her Jewish friend KJ ("My dad says you people own everything," which Erin then tries to call out, and the other girls shrug off.) Mac’s arc is all the more effective when we see what her future in 2019 holds, and how it reflects upon her brother, who is no longer the punk-bully his sister knew in the ‘80s. This timeline is sensitively handled like a lot of the show's reflective moments, and believable for its short-hand construction.
A great bond develops between the main ensemble too, making for genuinely heartwarming moments that have little to do with their shared bizarre situation. Real life becomes progressively alien to them, and they have to navigate their own homes for supplies and money while avoiding being recognized. But the series can be poignant about the element of growing up, as with an endearing, long sequence in which the girls work together to steal tampons from a convenience store, and then try to understand the printed instructions on how to use them.
For all the attention that is given to making the story feel of-the-moment, “Paper Girls” does have a lacking problem with illustrating its villains, known as the Old Watch, who police time travel on behalf of the mega-wealthy and reportedly feed their captured to the dinosaurs. Dressed in drab white robes and using laser weapons that just look like larger versions of guns, the baddies are handled with a certain laziness that affects their menace, and therefore the overall stakes. As the lead hunter of this group, Adina Porter has some wicked fun with Prioress' imposing presence, but sometimes all she has is a grin, or her character's close-but-no-cigar timing to nabbing one of the girls.
When it comes to a show as crafty and good as “Paper Girls,” you can survive without a large emphasis on its broad science; I appreciate how they try to keep time travel “practical,” and make it sound like a pain in the ass, a journey without a guaranteed sure route. It's more about getting to know these girls and the surprise paths they take, decades away from their paper delivery gigs or the people that they thought they would become.
Six episodes of season one screened for review. "Paper Girls" is now playing on Prime Video.