Paper Girls review: Not just another Stranger Things
This new Prime Video sci-fi drama is far more than a clone of Netflix's biggest hit.
Shall we get the Stranger Things comparisons out of the way?
Paper Girls is not the same beast. The two shows may share a few touchstones — a young cast, a 1980s setting, paranormal activity — but make no bones about it, you’re not in Hawkins any more. Welcome instead to Stony Stream and a show with equally big ideas but a much more contemplative pace.
And it's all the better for it. Prime Video’s Paper Girls, thanks to an incredible ensemble cast of relative newcomers, is that rare and welcome surprise: a show about children made for grown-ups. With no shortage of excitement, thrills and big-ticket sci-fi moments — gigantic mecha-robot fights, tame dinosaurs, apocalyptic time-rifts open in the sky — the show manages to balance these whizz-bang scenes with rich and fulsome character development that would be at home in any top-tier drama.
Set (at least initially) in 1988 in the small hours after Halloween, Paper Girls introduces us to four newspaper deliverers — Mac, KJ, Tiffany and Erin, the “new girl” who acts as our guide to small-town Stony Stream, a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio.
The four aren’t friends – at least not at the beginning. They’re from different parts of town, go to different schools, have different backgrounds. They’re thrown together through necessity, travelling together for safety on “Hell Day”, when the dregs of drunken Halloween revellers are still on the streets and can pose a real danger to a lone 12-year-old girl.
The four girls are well-drawn from the off. Mac (Sofia Rosinsky) is the blue-collar, proto-grunge, smart-mouth kid, KJ (Fina Strazza) the well-to-do Jewish girl, Tiffany (Camryn Jones) the ambitious, clever science nerd, and Erin (Riley Lai Nelet) something of a cypher, the one who hangs back initially as the others’ personalities blossom.
Then, they’re quickly thrown into the meat of the story — the sky turns an ominous shade of purple, their town seems suddenly eerily deserted and not quite right, and the girls find they’ve unwittingly stumbled into a skirmish in a long-running time-war between two factions: the Old Watch, committed to preserving the integrity of timelines at any cost, and the STF, a ragtag rebellion underground that is fighting to overthrow the hardline policing of time travel.
By accident, the four girls get themselves transported forward in time, along with two members of the STF, to 2019 — and are marked for punishment by the Old Watch, whose unwavering dedication to their cause means only one outcome: a death sentence.
From this point, you might be expecting a rambunctious time-travel caper with shades of Back to the Future where the girls try to evade the Old Watch — in the form of American Horror Story’s Adina Porter as the Prioress — and fight to get back to 1988, meeting their older selves and relatives along the way. But think again.
Instead, alongside the sci-fi set pieces there are long scenes of interaction between the girls, fleshing out their characters. Even more intriguingly, the show also investigates the dynamics between their younger and older selves – principally, in the opening episodes, focusing on Erin and her 40-something self (played by Ali Wong).
The time-travel questions Paper Girls posits aren’t the usual ones — 'What if you went back in time and killed Hitler?', 'What if you accidentally ran over your great-grandfather on his way to his first date with your great-grandmother?', 'What if you stepped on a butterfly in prehistoric times?'
No, Paper Girls asks what we really want to know as kids: What will I be like when I’m older?
The dynamic between Erin and her older self, and then the other girls and their future counterparts as the series progresses, is the beating heart of Paper Girls. And happily, given this prominence, these interactions are utterly compelling and believable, thanks to the absolutely top-drawer performances of all four principal characters.
The production team reportedly fought hard against suggestions of ageing up the younger characters, (presumably in a bid by Amazon to capture the later-teen market, or to have one or more big-name actors in the roles), and I'm glad they stood their ground. The acting of the young cast is natural and honest, and there’s a highly-believable rawness to all of the performances.
Behind-the-scenes, Paper Girls is adapted from a comic book written by Brian K Vaughan and drawn by Cliff Chiang (who are both executive producers on the show), and while the series perfectly captures the tone, spirit and story of the comic, it’s fully and satisfyingly its own thing.
In a way, Paper Girls is the perfect Generation X parable. These kids aren’t whisked off to Narnia or Oz to take part in a glorious adventure and save the world. They’re collateral damage in a war that’s not their concern, and that they don’t want any part of. They just want to get home.
And at the same time, they're at the vanguard of a generation where things were beginning to change – change in attitudes to sexuality and race, to the expectations and ambitions of women. In their own way, each of the Paper Girls wants to change the world on some level.
They just don’t want to do it as the unwilling participants in a time-war that has nothing to do with them. Unfortunately, that’s not something they have a choice in.
By the end of the eight episodes of the first season — which ends on a suitable cliff-hanger — I was on my feet shouting for more. I can’t wait for the next instalment of this consummately-made, top quality genre drama.
Truly, like its titular heroes, Paper Girls delivers.
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