Yes, ‘Paper Girls’ Has Kids on Bikes in the Eighties — But It’s No ‘Stranger Things’ Rip-Off
If adaptations of Brian K. Vaughan’s comic books didn’t have terrible luck with timing, they’d have no luck at all.
Vaughan has co-created some of the most acclaimed, beloved comics of this century, but they have tended to involve such elaborate concepts and dense storytelling that they’ve taken an incredibly long time to journey from page to screen. As a result, they’ve arrived in other media at the worst possible moments. Runaways, about the rebellious teenage children of a group of supervillains, debuted on Hulu right before Marvel Studios’ Kevin Feige was preparing to take over Marvel’s TV operation and purge it of everything made under the previous regime. Y: The Last Man, set in a world where every man on Earth but one dropped dead at the same time, took so long to become a television show on FX that The Walking Dead (based on a comic that launched after Y) and other postapocalyptic series stole much of its thunder. (It did not help itself by not leaning into the specific nature of its own apocalypse, and was canceled after only one season.)
Now along comes Amazon Prime Video’s Paper Girls. The comic, written by Vaughan and illustrated by Cliff Chiang, debuted in October 2015, and dealt with a quartet of middle schoolers in the Eighties riding around on bicycles and finding themselves caught up in a science-fiction nightmare. Less than a year later, Netflix launched its own homage to the Eighties’ “kids on bikes” subgenre, and Stranger Things turned out to be slightly popular. So even though it came first, Paper Girls now risks appearing like a rip-off. (Or, if it were also on Netflix, it might seem like one of that streaming service’s seemingly endless collection of “If you liked Beloved Show A, you probably won’t mind Similar Show B” algorithm-feeders.)
But the resemblances are fairly superficial once Paper Girls gets going. It’s not just that its central quartet is female, when the bike-riding Eighties heroes tended to be boys. It’s not just that this show is much less interested in direct homages to the films of that era. Nor is it just that the premise revolves solely around science-fiction, with no horror components to speak of, and no images that will prompt some viewers to watch through the filter of their slightly outstretched fingers. Above all else, it’s that Paper Girls is primarily interested in its genre trappings as a way to explore its four central characters, rather than as the backbone of a serialized thrill ride.
And the new show is quite good at what it sets out to do. It just won’t necessarily scratch the itch for Stranger Things viewers preparing for another long hiatus, and looking to embrace a show that could be sold as, “What if kids on bikes, but this time they’re girl kids?”
The story begins in the wee hours of November 1, 1988. Erin (Riley Lai Nelet) is an ambitious girl who dreams of one day being elected president. But on this early morning, she is beginning her first day delivering newspapers in a small Cleveland suburb. While maneuvering around teenage boys who are up to post-Halloween mischief, she meets a trio of veteran paper girls: the cocky, antisocial Mac (Sofia Rosinsky), science-minded achiever Tiffany (Camryn Jones), and daughter of privilege KJ (Fina Strazza). The girls somehow get caught up in a violent war between rival groups of time-travelers, get sent to the year 2019, and discover that there may be no way for them to return home.
Tiffany is immediately all about finding a way back, while the other girls can’t help being curious about how their individual futures have turned out. Paper Girls, primarily adapted by Stephany Folsom(*), largely sides against poor Tiffany in this dichotomy. There’s periodic discussion of the time war — including Nate Corddry playing a corn farmer named Larry who is wrapped up in the conflict — and even occasional glimpses of ray guns, robots, dinosaurs, and other signposts of such an era-spanning adventure. Mostly, though, the series is excited to confront the girls with their adult selves, who are rarely what they expect.
(*) Folsom, who was jointly running the series with Halt and Catch Fire co-creator Christopher C. Rogers, left early in production, but reportedly after the scripts had been written. (One episode, for instance, is credited to Folsom, Rogers, and the other Halt creator, Christopher Cantwell.)
Early on, the season brings in Ali Wong to play the adult Erin, who never did run for president and leads a more ordinary and disappointing life than her 12-year-old self would have imagined. “People grow up and things change,” the older Erin explains to a younger version of herself who feels stunned and betrayed. Mac, who grew up under more difficult circumstances than the other girls, can’t believe her brother Dylan (Cliff Chamberlain) is now a wealthy doctor, nor does his description of her at a slightly older age ring true to her at all.
“That doesn’t sound like me,” she argues.
“You don’t know who you’re about to become,” he insists.
When the first episode puts the date onscreen, it adds a subtitle explaining that this is (like the R.E.M. song that was released the year before) “the end of the world as we know it.” Initially, it seems as if this is some kind of reference to the time war, particularly once we start to meet dangerous figures on both sides, including the vengeful Prioress (Adina Porter) and the smug Grandfather (Jason Mantzoukas). But it soon becomes apparent that Paper Girls means those words in the sense that each girl is discovering that in the future, the versions of herself that she knows has ceased to exist.
This focus on the girls’ emotional journeys turns Paper Girls into more of a vibes show than you might expect from something with so much theoretical plot. There are times where the lack of urgency among the characters — even Tiffany eventually lets herself get sidetracked by the chance to meet her adult incarnation (Sekai Abenì) — and the slack pacing can be frustrating. That’s especially so because the rare occasions when the series decides it wants to be a sci-fi epic after all are fun and exciting. But the emotional beats can be potent. And so many modern genre shows are too focused on plot to give you characters to invest in — a.k.a. the whole reason to put time in watching a TV show instead of the quicker experience of movies — that it feels refreshing when one of them leans this far in the other direction.
While characters in time-travel stories usually require lots of convincing about what’s happening, the adult Tiffany accepts it almost immediately. “You’re taking all of this really well,” her younger self notes. Paper Girls viewers may require a bit more time to accept what this show is doing. But once they embrace the reality in front of them, they’ll likely enjoy it a lot.
All eight episodes of Paper Girls are streaming now on Amazon Prime Video. I’ve seen the whole season.