The last time I spoke of paper girlsI have already mentioned the inevitable stranger things comparison, so there is no need to dwell on it. Thing is, the one thing the two shows have in common is that they focus on teenagers in the 1980s who are forced to come to terms with strange happenings. In paper girls, the adaptation of the comedy series of the same name written by Brian K. Vaughn and illustrated by Cliff Chiang (both also executive producers of the series), this event begins in the early morning hours of November 1, 1988, when four girls working on their paper itineraries pursue a pair of thieves only to end up as unwitting time travelers. The stakes only increase when they learn that they are now in the middle of a time war between two factions. As they race for their lives, stumbling from decade to decade, they discover the state of their future and are forced to confront the truths revealed by each encounter.
It’s the kind of female-led pre-teen series that’s rare despite the seemingly endless supply of current show offerings, and why. paper girls has been compared favorably to shows such as The Babysitters Club (not as often as previously mentioned stranger things, but certainly a more considered comparison). The girls at the center of the show, 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 are presented with serious dignity. it is generally not granted to young girls. Multiple issues such as race, immigration and class are all dealt with in turn, but it never feels superficial (the treatment of sexuality in particular is handled with an emotion that many other shows can only dream).
Unfortunately, one of the things that holds it back is the very premise that it’s all based on: the sci-fi events tasked with driving the story forward. Its biggest flaw is the fact that when the show gets into the genre, the logic quickly breaks down. The big bad, the faction known as The Old Watch, are presented as strict time watchers who work diligently to hunt down all time travelers, believing that past events should be left alone. The organization is led by the grandfather (Jason Mantzoukas, occupying a role that unfortunately never goes beyond the label of “funny cameo”) who, despite The Old Watch’s deference to the maintenance of 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 given that it is not addressed at all, one can only assume that Mantzoukas has a pet pterodactyl just because it’s supposed to look cool, bigger implications can be damned. It’s just one of the more goofy examples of how the show doesn’t try to embrace its sci-fi as much as it tries to avoid it.
That’s the bad news and it just might be a dealbreaker for sci-fi fans, as well as fans of the source material (to be fair, sci-fi in the comics is also wonky, that’s just better presented). But for those able to accept the flimsy sci-fi framing, the kids at the center make all eight episodes worth watching. paper girls is at its best when it explores what it’s like to be a young girl, especially when you’re stuck helplessly trying to cope with the limitations imposed on you. One of the best scenes is about the girls who, in addition to dealing with a recent tragedy and a failed attempt to return home, now have to deal with acquiring menstrual hygiene products. Watching the four inexperienced friends with their heads bent over a box of tampons as the world’s most confusing group project makes for a great change of tone, as well as one of the most refreshing on-screen portrayals of menstruation I’ve ever seen. have never seen:
Tiffany: “What do you think ‘super’ and ‘regular’ mean?”
Mac, confident: “Obviously the size of your vagina.”
Erin: “Are you sure?”
Mac: “…yes. I would probably be a super!
The emotional heart of the series is Mac, the tough smoker from a poor and dysfunctional home, who discovers that meeting a future self is a luxury not available to everyone. Rosinsky has an impressively magnetic screen presence and gives Mac a nuance that your standard “wrong side of the tracks” persona often lacks. When she connects with the future version of her older brother, Dylan (Cliff Chamberlain), a man very different from the surly teenager she once knew, what initially seems like a simple deviation from the main plot becomes a moving portrayal of family and the possibility of a second chance.
With one of the biggest conventions of time travel being the possibility of redoing, the fact that the girls are all, in one way or another, disappointed with what their future holds creates a tantalizing philosophical conflict :d does the desire to change the future begin and the temporal paradox end? Despite the series’ flaws – including a finale that is, unfortunately, 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 the premise is worth pursuing. If showrunner Christopher C. Rogers (the series was originally developed for television by writer Stephany Folsom, who left the project when principal photography began for unknown reasons) can find a way to resolve his confusing time travel issues, paper girls could very well have a fantastic future ahead of him.
The entire first season of paper girls is available to stream on Prime Video.
Kaleena Rivera is Pajiba’s TV editor. When she’s not using this as a safe space to admit she’s never seen 2001: A Space Odyssey but now plans to take the time to do so thanks to this show, we find it on Twitter here.
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Header image source: Anjali Pinto/Prime Video