With Hollywood seeing the rise of the kids-on-bikes-in-the-80s subgenre, it was only a matter of time before Paper Girls, the hit 2015 comic series by Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang, was brought to the screen, or in this case, streaming on Prime Video. Paper Girls follows four young newspaper delivery girls as they’re caught in the middle of a war between two time-traveling groups. Launched through time, the girls find themselves in the modern day, where they’re faced with the futures that await them.
Much of the appeal of Paper Girls lies in its characters, meaning that casting was a vital component of getting a live-action series right. Prime Video’s attempt generally does a good job balancing its older cast with its leads, made up of young actresses, allowing mostly everyone a chance to flex their acting skills. Though there is some strange line delivery throughout this 8-episode first season, a more conversational approach to dialogue is employed, which is a bit off-putting at first but becomes more natural as the story progresses. All of the leads have good chemistry amongst themselves, and while the individual character traits may not be as well defined as they could be, the performances are never really the problem.
As the show goes visually, scenes are often underlit at night to the extent that certain moments meant to elicit shock don’t land because it’s impossible to see what’s actually happening. The pink sky motif of Paper Girls should make for gorgeous spectacle and was certainly used heavily in the advertising but isn’t used nearly to its full potential. Even if effects are sparse across the board, they won’t do a lot to impress audiences. The visual flair that Cliff Chiang’s art brought to the comics is gone completely, replaced with a product that fits squarely in the style of any other straight-to-streaming modern sci-fi releases, packaged with muted colors and serviceable camerawork.
And though it does fit the category, Paper Girls’ handling of the sci-fi part of their sci-fi time travel narrative leaves a lot to be desired. Paper Girls is both greatly involved with lore and worldbuilding while also holding back on sharing any of that with the audience, which is no doubt meant to build an air of mystery but ends up growing very old very quickly. There’s never a moment where it all comes together, instead revealing bits and pieces of information with no weight or clarification behind them, meaning that a lot of the time the characters’ goals aren’t exactly clear. It’s not that Paper Girls is entirely inaccessible, in fact, anyone at all familiar with the standard tropes of time travel stories will see where it’s going pretty quickly. However, the necessary connection that the audience has to develop with the story’s world is severely missing.
Anytime Paper Girls dives into sci-fi, it feels more like an obligation than anything else. This becomes particularly distracting when the core cast is forced to interact with the larger-than-life. Although fish out of water main characters aren’t a new concept, in Paper Girls it’s taken to an extreme, regularly making the show a jarring viewing experience. Paper Girls can go from a difficult conversation between two estranged sisters to a giant mech being introduced with absolutely no grace. In a lot of ways, the protagonists interacting with these elements feels like a gag, but it’s played entirely straight. It’s not good when the primary sell of your show is both impossible to take seriously and feels like a burden for the creative team. Even in a series that contains laser gunfights and mech duels, the story itself has incredibly low stakes, probably exasperated by the aforementioned vagueness with which the lore is established.
That said, the greatest weakness of Paper Girls proves to be its greatest strength as well. The action and sci-fi are incredibly out of place and empty, leaving most of the effort put into the in-between moments where we get to see the characters really shine. KJ has no interest in seeing where she ends up, Mac finds a future where her brother is seemingly doing great without her, Tiffany seems to get everything she ever wanted, meanwhile, all of Erin’s dreams fell flat. It’s here where Paper Girl’s appeal is highlighted, depicting four 12-year-olds seeing their hopes and fears come true, and it’s their reactions and interactions with this future that allows us to finally understand what these heroes are made of. Erin’s dynamic with ‘Old Erin’ (as she comes to be known) is especially interesting, as Old Erin’s anxiety disorder is paired with the clear disappointment of her past self, her shame given voice. Even further revelations happen as the characters continue to interact with the world they were thrust into.
Despite this, Paper Girls also feels emotionally disjointed. The show stretches out about five issues of the comic into four episodes, ripe with new subplots and original characters, while condensing the time spent with Heck and Naldo, two time-traveling soldiers that save the girls and bring them through time. Their time in the comics is only told across two issues, yet in Prime Video’s adaptation, it’s shortened to only one scene. This wouldn’t be a problem on its own, however, the issue arises when their effect on the characters remains unchanged. We’re meant to care about the two soldiers, some of the Paper Girls are willing to sacrifice themselves to save them, and time is dedicated to mourning them. With their exposition cut out, it’s not even entirely clear who Heck and Naldo are or if our heroes can trust them until about two episodes after they’re gone. This is just one of many examples of the series making assumptions about the viewer already caring more about certain characters than they really do. Paper Girls is interested in its big emotional beats but isn’t willing to earn them a lot of the time.
There are moments where Paper Girls finds its stride and is genuinely interesting and engaging. You can often see what the vision underneath all the clutter is meant to be, probably the show they should have been making. These moments sadly don’t last long, and viewers quickly find themselves thrust into a time war plot that nobody, audience or creator, particularly wants to be dealing with. Paper Girls is largely a drag, putting way too much on its plate when its strengths lie in the nuances and the quiet between the blockbuster moments. A talented cast and famed source material can’t save a messy and inconsistent attempt to dive into the success that Stranger Things and IT saw, nor do any of its differences from those other two elevate the material enough to stand out from what it pulls from.