It doesn’t take long for the Paper Girls comic books to get strange. The series from Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang starts out with a dream about an astronaut with angel wings and a skull for a face, and before the first issue is done, you’ll have seen an odd partially-organic space capsule and read a completely incomprehensible language from people who might be monsters. Things only get weirder from there.
But the new live-action series of the same name, the first season of which is available on Amazon Prime Video, dials back the strangeness. It’s still a science fiction story about a group of girls from the ‘80s who are pulled into a time-traveling war that spans centuries. But it doesn’t have nearly as much fun with the concept as its source material. It isn’t until the finale that Paper Girls really shows why it’s interesting — and you have to wade through eight very uneven episodes to get to that point.
This review contains spoilers for the first season of Paper Girls.
Paper Girls is set in 1988 and starts very early in the morning on “Hell Day,” the day after Halloween, when four girls set off to complete their paper routes. The day is important because, in the wee hours of the morning while the girls are biking through the neighborhood, there are still rowdy teens prowling the streets in search of kids to terrorize. After a few close calls, the girls — Tiff (Camryn Jones), Mac (Sofia Rosinsky), KJ (Fina Strazza), and newbie Erin (Riley Lai Nelet) — band together in the interest of safety despite barely knowing each other. It doesn’t do much good, though, because it’s not long before some weird guy steals one of Tiff’s walkie-talkies and the girls discover that seemingly everyone in town has disappeared. Oh, and the sky has turned a very unnatural shade of bright pink.
Superficially, Paper Girls feels a little like Amazon’s answer to Stranger Things, with its focus on kids dealing with strange events in the 1980s. But whereas Stranger Things is all about D&D-inspired supernatural occurrences, Paper Girls is a time-travel story. While the girls initially worry about typical ‘80s concerns — the Soviets are invading! — they’re instead pulled into a complex time war between two factions with very different aims. One travels through the years in order to fix things and improve life for humanity, while the other believes in keeping the timeline pure and thus goes about erasing the other side’s hard work. The girls don’t necessarily care about any of this. But when they’re transported to 2009, they’re forced in between the two factions as they go about finding a way back home.
Paper Girls does a few things really well. The best thing about the show is the girls themselves. Unlike most of the ‘80s romps you might be familiar with, this isn’t about a tight-knit group of friends facing adversity. Instead, it’s four kids who barely know each other — and who are all very different from one another — being forced to work together to both survive and get back to their own time period. They become friends eventually, but it doesn’t start out that way.
The cast is incredible. The main thing pulling me through the show wasn’t the sci-fi side of the equation but, rather, the ongoing drama between the girls, who are forced to confront hard truths as they go into the future and, in some cases, meet their future selves. This runs the gamut from know-it-all Tiff worrying about getting into MIT to KJ learning about her sexuality and Erin being disappointed in how boring her life turns out. Overall, the show is just really well cast; the kids even look like their comic book counterparts. Other highlights include a surprisingly effective Ali Wong as Old Erin and an inspired Jason Mantzoukas as the hipster leader of one of the time-traveling factions who is obsessed with Public Enemy and Metallica.
Unfortunately, the other side of the equation, the sci-fi story, doesn’t hold up as well. To start off, it’s vastly underexplained. You don’t really know anything about the time war until the season is basically over, so it’s hard to really care about any of the time-traveling characters who keep popping up (and, in some cases, dying more than once). More than that, though, it just feels generic.
Part of this is aesthetic. Whereas Paper Girls the comic is vibrant and colorful thanks to colorist Matt Wilson, Paper Girls the show often looks bland and cheap, particularly when it comes to the CGI and the futuristic outfits and locations. Soldiers from the future look like background characters from The Next Generation. A key plot point revolves around a futuristic phone that the girls discover; in the comics, it’s a bizarre vision of what the iPhone will look like, while the show turns it into a generic black slab. (It’s not even a Fire Phone! The show also misses a perfect opportunity for an Alexa joke.) Sometimes the sky turns pink, but mostly, it looks like any other midbudget sci-fi series.
There are a few hints of fun along the way. Watching Ali Wong pilot a mech suit is as entertaining as it sounds. But for the most part, Paper Girls doesn’t make the best use of its source material. Instead, it’s a really great coming-of-age drama tied to a fairly bland story about time travel. It’s not until the eighth and final episode when things really start to click: the war is explained, paths diverge, and — most importantly — it gets downright strange. And by that I mean a dinosaur shows up. It takes a long time to get to that point, though. The cast does its best to keep you invested along the way, but there are some very boring moments you’ll need to look past to get through it.
As it stands, Paper Girls feels like it could be the start of something cool. The story ends in an interesting place, and if Amazon takes some of that Lord of the Rings budget to spruce things up, there’s a lot of potential. But potential doesn’t make for a great series of television (especially with no current promise of a season 2). Paper Girls has a lot to work with from the comics, but it never fully comes together in the debut season.
Paper Girls starts streaming on Amazon Prime Video on July 29th.