‘Paper Girls’ Review: Amazon Series Never Finds Its Sci-Fi Groove but Excels at Preteen Dynamics

‘Paper Girls’ Review: Amazon Series Never Finds Its Sci-Fi Groove but Excels at Preteen Dynamics

Amazon’s Paper Girls features time travel, a burgeoning interdimensional conflict and giant robots straight out of Pacific Rim. It’s certain to earn everybody’s lazy comparisons to Stranger Things, though it feels essential to mention that Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang’s Image Comics series predates Netflix’s exercise in ’80s teen nostalgia.

You can’t describe Paper Girls without talking about its science fiction spine. That, however, is not the thing. It’s the thing that gets you to the thing.

The Bottom Line

A slight sci-fi dud, but a coming-of-age triumph.

Airdate: Friday, July 29 (Amazon)

Cast: Sofia Rosinsky, Camryn Jones, Riley Lai Nelet, Fina Strazza

Creator: Stephany Folsom from the comic by Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang

If you don’t get that reference, get thee to a streaming platform that carries Halt and Catch Fire immediately. If you got the reference, but wonder why anybody would use a Halt and Catch Fire reference to describe a show that’s Stranger Things — sorry, it’s unavoidable — by way of The Baby-Sitters Club, it’s notable that while Paper Girls was created for TV by Stephany Folsom, Halt creators Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers served as executive producers, with Rogers as co-showrunner.

So although fantastical elements give Paper Girls its hook, what’s actually fantastic about the eight-episode series is its unexpectedly lovely depiction of preteen female friendship. It’s a mix that may cause problems, because the viewers attracted by the Stranger Things of it all will probably demand more end-of-the-world stakes, and the viewers mourning the demise of Netflix’s Baby-Sitters Club may find what end-of-the-world-stakes there are to be frustratingly intrusive. I was surprised by how much I loved the middle of the series, in which the narrative from the comics is jettisoned entirely in favor of well-played character dynamics, and then found myself chagrined when the plot of the comics returned at the end.

Paper Girls begins on the morning of Nov. 1, 1988. Four girls — tomboy Mac (Sofia Rosinsky), overachiever Tiffany (Camryn Jones), seemingly spoiled KJ (Fina Strazza) and newbie Erin (Riley Lai Nelet) — are riding their bikes through post-Halloween detritus, delivering newspapers in their quiet Cleveland suburb. Then fuchsia clouds fill the sky and a team of white-uniformed soldiers led by Adina Porter (or a character played by the great Adina Porter) swarm the neighborhood. Before you know it — the Georgi Banks-Davies-directed pilot is a delightfully brisk 37 minutes — our young heroines are whisked to the future.

In the future, they find themselves stuck in a war between two factions, one bent on changing negative aspects of history and one determined to protect the integrity of the timeline at any cost, though it isn’t always clear or relevant who the good guys are.

Vaughan and Chiang’s comic is a wild thing. Within its early issues, there are wrapped figures who look like zombies (but aren’t), winged creatures that look like dinosaurs (and are) and layers of future tech and jargon. Its colors are vibrant, its aesthetic a hyper-stylized ’80s pastiche and its four main characters expressive and instantly sympathetic, though they’re slaves to the storyline, bonding mostly in the pauses between breathless action sequences.

It’s tremendously entertaining, though I’m not sure if it does a great job of clarifying its premise, so I thoroughly appreciate that Folsom and Rogers decided to foreground the bonding. After an opening episode of effective Spielbergian mood-building and suspense, beautifully shot by Zachary Galler using the paper girls’ bikes as an excuse for energetic and sweeping navigation of retro suburbia, and the jump 20-plus years into the future, the series adjusts its focus. More than anything, it’s about the optimism of youth crashing provocatively into the realities of adulthood.

Like the main character in Big, the girls are convinced that the solution to the problems of adolescence is … skipping past it. They dream of college and professional success, but more than that, they dream of being fully realized and not balls of putty to be manipulated and controlled by their parents or limited by the confines of their hometown. In the future, they have to confront who and what they’ve become or haven’t become, starting with Erin, whose older version is played with solid symmetry by Ali Wong. Some of them didn’t get the education they wanted or the jobs they wanted. Some of them don’t have the family or the relationships they expected. The recognition that the future isn’t how we imagine it is juxtaposed with the understanding that sometimes the rose-colored past isn’t how we remember it either.

“You know, I’m kinda sick of everybody talking about the good ol’ days like they were actually good,” Mac says, which I’m interpreting as a very direct jab at Stranger Things. It’s a truth that nobody should be forced to learn at 12, but which the paper girls face with humor, poignancy and lots of long, talky scenes that will probably irritate comic fans thinking, “I was promised pterodactyls.”

Paper Girls is not an exciting series. After the premiere, it’s low on set pieces, and when visual effects are necessary, they’re mediocre. But especially in the middle of the season, it’s an astonishingly sweet and carefully emotional series. It’s a show of introspective, touching dialogue, subtle nonverbal interactions and very clever use of chronological paradoxes to underline universal themes. The show lives in the little beats, like a Black character showing her younger self how to wrap her hair before bed, or in uncomfortable awkwardness, like one of the best introduction to menstruation scenes in coming-of-age fiction, or in layered conversations, like a discussion of the films of Stanley Kubrick that isn’t about the films of Stanley Kubrick at all.

It’s a show that has to be carried by a quartet of relatively unknown actresses. And it is, indeed, anchored by Lai Nelet, Jones, Rosinsky and Strazza. Lai Nelet holds together the first couple of episodes, and she and Wong match each other’s mannerisms and escalating exasperation well. Jones provides the precocious, dogged heart of the show’s middle chapters, and Rosinsky and Strazza are tremendous in the sixth and seventh episodes. Would the scenes of tentatively lovely female friendship have made me think of Halt and Catch Fire if Rogers and Cantwell weren’t involved? I haven’t the faintest, but there’s much to praise about this world in which men are basically irrelevant — Nate Corddry and a guest star I won’t spoil are quite good as the exceptions. Our protagonists find almost every imaginable way to relate to one another.

The series loves and respects its characters so much and prioritizes them over the plot so totally that when the finale decides it needs to establish momentum for a second season, it’s a letdown. You realize how badly the central conflict has been explained, how many things that felt really important for a minute or two in the opening installments had been forgotten entirely, and how the dynamic between the four girls from 1988 at a party in 1999 is so much more special than the expensive special effects. It’s a disappointing end, but it’s a disappointment that comes from actual investment. I’ll take it.