The last time I talked about Paper Girls, I already mentioned the inevitable Stranger Things comparison, so there’s no need to rehash it. The fact is, the only thing the two series have in common is that they center around teens in the 1980s who are forced to cope with odd events. In Paper Girls, the adaptation of the comic series of the same name written by Brian K. Vaughn and illustrated by Cliff Chiang (both of whom also act as executive producers on the series), that event begins in the early morning hours of November 1st, 1988, as four girls working on their paper routes chase down a pair of thieves only to end up as unwitting time travelers. The stakes only get higher when they learn they’re now in the midst of a time war between two factions. As they run for their lives, stumbling from one decade to another, they learn about the state of their future selves and are forced to confront the truths each encounter reveals.
It’s the sort of pre-teen, female-led series that’s in short supply despite the seemingly endless amount of current show offerings, as well as the reason why Paper Girls has been favorably compared to such shows as The Babysitter Club (not as often as the previously mentioned Stranger Things, though certainly a more thoughtful comparison). The girls at the show’s center, KJ Brandman (Fina Strazza), Tiffany Quilkin (Camryn Jones), Erin Tieng (Riley Lai Nelet), and Mac Coyle (Sofia Rosinsky), all come with their own unique struggles that’s presented with an earnest dignity that’s typically not afforded to young girls. Multiple issues such as race, immigration, and class are all dealt with in turn, yet it never feels perfunctory (the treatment of sexuality in particular is treated with a poignancy that plenty of other shows can only dream of).
Unfortunately, one of the things that holds it back is the very premise the entire thing hangs on: the sci-fi events responsible for moving the story forward. Its biggest flaw is the fact that when the show goes all-in on the genre, logic quickly falls apart. The big bad, the faction known as The Old Watch, is presented as strict overseers of time who diligently work to hunt down any time travelers under the belief that past events should be left alone. The organization is run by the Grand Father (Jason Mantzoukas, occupying a role that unfortunately never ascends beyond the label of ‘fun cameo’) who, despite The Old Watch’s deference for maintaining time and space, has dinosaurs at his disposal. This could be an interesting opportunity to delve into the hypocrisy that can often be found in members of authority, but considering that it’s not addressed whatsoever, it can only be assumed Mantzoukas has a pet pterodactyl simply because it’s supposed to look cool, larger implications be damned. This is just one of the zanier examples of how the show doesn’t try to embrace its sci-fi as much as it tries to sidestep it.
That’s the bad news and may well be a dealbreaker for sci-fi enthusiasts, as well as fans of the source material (to be fair, the science fiction in the comics is also on the wobbly side, it’s just better presented). But for those who are able to accept the flimsy science fiction framing, the kids at the center make the eight episodes worthwhile viewing. Paper Girls is at its best when it explores what it is to be a young girl, especially when you’re stuck without any resources trying to make do with the limitations placed on you. One of the best scenes involves the girls who, on top of dealing with recent tragedy and a failed attempt at getting home, must now contend with acquiring menstrual hygiene products. Watching the four inexperienced friends with their heads bent over a box of tampons like the world’s most puzzling group project makes for an excellent tone shift, as well as one of the most refreshing on screen depictions of periods I’ve ever seen:
Tiffany: “What do you think ‘super’ and ‘regular’ mean?”
Mac, confidently: “Obviously the size of your vagina.”
Erin: “You sure?”
Mac: “…yes. I’d probably be a super!”
The emotional heart of the series is Mac, the cigarette smoking tough girl from a poor, dysfunctional household, who discovers that meeting a future self is a luxury not afforded to everyone. Rosinsky has an impressively magnetic presence on screen and lends Mac a nuance that’s often missing from your standard ‘wrong side of the tracks’ character. When she connects with the future version of her older brother, Dylan (Cliff Chamberlain), a man greatly changed from the surly teenager she once knew him as, what initially seems like a mere deviation from the main plot becomes a stirring depiction of family and the possibility of second chances.
With one of the greatest conventions of time travel being the possibility for do-overs, the fact that the girls are all, in one way or another, disappointed with what their futures hold makes for a tantalizing philosophical conflict: where does the desire to alter the future begin and temporal paradox end? Despite the series’ flaws—including a finale that is, sadly, rendered the weakest episode of the season due to a series of late exposition dumps and a compression of the adaptation’s emotional core in order to hastily set up a second season—it’s a story and premise worth continuing. If show runner Christopher C. Rogers (the series was originally developed for tv by writer Stephany Folsom, who left the project when principal photography began for unknown reasons) can figure out a way to tighten up its muddled time travel issues, Paper Girls could very well go on to have a fantastic future ahead of it.
The entire first season of Paper Girls is available to stream on Prime Video.
Kaleena Rivera is the TV Editor for Pajiba. When she isn’t using this as safe space to admit she’s never seen 2001: A Space Odyssey but is now considering taking the time to do so thanks to this show, she can be found on Twitter here.
Header Image Source: Anjali Pinto/Prime Video