Four kids on bikes navigate the dark, deserted streets of 1980s small-town America in the early hours of the morning... and strangeness is around the next bend.
But we're not back in the Upside Down for more Stranger Things – this is the world of Paper Girls, a new series from Prime Video that drops on 29th July and might just fill that gap left by the Hawkins gang.
And while Matt and Ross Duffer, the creators of Stranger Things, might have made their show an ode to the decade they were born in via their love of movies and television from the decade, Paper Girls is about telling the '80s a lot more like it was.
Brian K Vaughan, executive producer of Paper Girls and the author of the original comic book it's adapted from, tells RadioTimes.com: "It does feel like a lot of media set in the '80s was more influenced by TV shows and movies that came out in that decade, but most of the people who worked on Paper Girls were around in the '80s, we remember it, and we didn’t want to do a cartoonish version of it, but rather show it warts and all."
Executive producer and showrunner Christopher C Rogers agrees. "The show is set in 1988 and there’s an almost Wes Craven-ish feel to it," he says. "It leans away from the nostalgia but I think it also plays fair with the decade and the different experiences these women would be feeling because of their different ethnicities and sexual orientation. We try to show more colours of the period than a purely nostalgic look back."
On the face of it, Paper Girls shares a lot of DNA with the all-conquering Stranger Things – diverse teenage cast, '80s setting, synth-heavy soundtrack, and more sci-fi weirdness that you can shake a Demogorgon at. But the comic book that Paper Girls is based on, written by Vaughan and illustrated by Cliff Chiang, actually predates Stranger Things by a good nine months, with the first issue released by Image Comics in October 2015.
The eight-episode first season of Paper Girls adapts this story to follow Erin, Mac, Tiffany and KJ, four 12-year-old newspaper deliverers out on their rounds in Stony Stream, a fictional suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. On the morning after Halloween 1988 they suddenly get caught up in a reality-warping time war, and find themselves thrust into (pretty much) the present day.
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Now, they have to try to find a way back to 1988 while avoiding the attention of an organisation called the Old Watch, which rigorously polices unauthorised time travel. And of course, there's the chance they might meet their future selves...
Generally, the series focuses on new girl Erin Tieng, played by Riley Lai Nelet. Her 2019 self (Ali Wong) tries to help the girls, but her humdrum life is found wanting by her ambitious 12-year-old incarnation. Sofia Rosinsky is Mac Coyle, the tough tomboy laden with the weight of her family’s prejudiced outlook on life, while Camryn Jones plays technology geek Tiffany Quilkin. Fina Strazza completes the quartet as hockey-mad KJ Brandman, secretly wrestling with her sexuality.
As Vaughn and Rogers suggest, Paper Girls portrays a much more downbeat view of life in the 1980s than you might have seen in other franchises. This is the small-town '80s of unemployment, Reaganomics, and fear of nuclear obliteration. If Stranger Things is wearing leg warmers and singing I Think We’re Alone Now at the Dayglo roller-disco, Paper Girls is hanging around on a street corner smoking stolen cigarettes and listening to New Order.
The Paper Girls comic had a very specific look to it, with Chiang’s art coloured in muted, earthy tones – and this has translated to the TV show. Chiang, also an executive producer, tells RadioTimes.com: "Pretty early on I made a document of visual inspirations and images and panels from the comic that I thought were important and it was really interesting to see how the production department really took that to heart.
"The priority of making things believable and lived in really comes through, and when you juxtapose that with the really incredible elements and time trial that’s when the contrast really strikes and you can feel the adventure."
So if you read the 30 issues of the Paper Girls comic that were released between 2015 and 2019, you’ll already know the whole story of the TV show, right? Not quite, says Vaughan.
"If you’re one of those people who thinks they can just go to Wikipedia and read the plot of the comic to know what’s going to happen next on the show, then that’s not going to happen," he laughs. "The show is enormously faithful to the spirit and tone of the comic but they go to some wild and unexpected places, so whether you’ve never read the comic or you’re an obsessive who’s read every panel multiple times, you’re going to be surprised. Paper Girls the series gets off to a breakneck pace and I love that."
Rogers adds: "It was a challenge to chop something up that’s as grand as the comic book but we wanted to get the girls together on this journey over the first episode which had to move very fast. We also get the opportunity to sit down with some of the more personal moments that the comic has to necessarily move through quickly."
Many of those more reflective moments come when the girls meet their future selves, or their family and friends who have moved on three decades. In particular, the interactions between Erin and her older version (Wong) stand out, with Erin slightly horrified to see how she eventually turned out.
"I love time travel stories," Vaughn says. "Back to the Future is obviously a big influence, but I wanted to work out how we can use it not just for the genre thrills but the metaphorical power of looking back at yourself and looking forward at where you’e headed. It’s one thing to do it in a comic where we’re able to effortlessly take someone from age 12 to age 45, but to get to see actual living actors embody that is really striking.
"It hits home and made me think, what would my 12-year-old self think of me now – would they be disappointed, would they be horrified, would they be sad that I‘m bald?"
The relationships between the core cast are the heart of the show. A worldwide casting search was made and there were discussions about whether the girls should be older than the 12-years they are in the comic, and whether a big name actor was needed to carry the series.
"To the great credit of everyone involved we were able to fend off that pressure and find four relatively unknown actresses," Rogers tells us. "They really bring themselves to these roles and make it so believable, but they also handle very difficult and what some people would call adult dialogue amazingly. What’s important about this is that’s how real 12-year-olds talk, this is a show that endeavours to take kids this age seriously."
The show will inevitably get those Stranger Things comparisons. Does that matter?
"I have to admit to having never seen it," laughs Vaughan. "I was working on the comic when it was announced and I just didn’t want to be influenced by it. But my 12-year-old son is obsessed with Stranger Things and he’s seen all of Paper Girls and he says right within five minutes you see they’re wildly different shows.
"Stranger Things is an important, world-shattering show and I welcome any comparisons, really, because we’re all fishing in the same waters. A lot of us are influenced by the same things and it feels like we certainly all owe a debt to Stephen King.
"So I hope there’s room in the world for both Stranger Things and Paper Girls."
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