Paper Girls Review by Elle Daniel
Based on the Image Comics series by Brian K. Vaughn and Cliff Chiang, Amazon Studios and Prime Video delves into time traveling and eighties nostalgia with their new show, Paper Girls.
Paper Girls follows four young newspaper delivery girls—Erin Tieng, Tiffany Quilkin, Mac Coyle, and KJ Brandman—in 1988 as they deliver newspapers on Hell Day, the morning after Halloween, when the adults are done giving out candy but the older teenagers are still looking for stragglers to torment. Sticking together for their own safety, the four girls inadvertently find themselves displaced in time. Stuck in a year that isn’t their own, they must figure out how to get back to the eighties while grappling with their grown-up counterparts and the futuristic corporation hunting them down.
Spanning eight episodes; Paper Girls is a fair departure from its source material. Fans of the comic series should expect a pared-down adaptation, with the story’s more ambitious visuals saved for big reveals rather than worldbuilding. The time travel is kept simple and easy to track. Relationships between characters take precedence until the show finds its footing in the last two episodes and the science-fiction aspects become front and center.
While Stony Stream and the show itself could’ve benefited from a more stylized look, especially to better separate the different eras in time, one place it shines is its excellent costume design. The characters look as if they’ve stepped right off the page onto the screen, and viewers will enjoy the eye-catching outerwear of the show’s main antagonists. Whether intentional or not, fashion plays a key role in marking the time period when the setting does not.
Luckily, it’s the character-driven moments that often stand out the most. When the script slows down to allow its characters to breathe, the girls’ relationships with one another feel their most genuine. Death, life, family, and sexuality collide as they bounce between decades. These moments are further bolstered by excellent performances from Sofia Rosinsky, Camryn Jones, Fina Strazza, and Riley Lai Nelet.
Amongst the new faces are a few familiar ones—Ali Wong (Always Be My Maybe) and Adina Porter (Outer Banks, True Blood), to name two—but keep an eye out for Sekai Abenì, who is without a doubt a bonafide scene-stealer and an actor I personally hope to see again soon on the big screen.
We all wonder where we’ll be in three, five, ten years down the line, and Paper Girls answers with a question of its own: if we were given the chance to find out who we become, how would it change who we are now?
Paper Girls Review by Robyn Sophia:
I will be 100% honest: I have never read Paper Girls. It never especially crossed my radar, but with the advent of Amazon Studios’ streaming adaptation, I thought “what the hell” and jumped straight into it. What follows is a little less of a review and a little more stream-of-consciousness first reaction, but I hope to cut to the core of how the show works for me, as someone who has never engaged with the source material.
So, my name is Sophia, and I am a woman. Kind of a new development, and I’m still working through the implications, but bear with me for a second.
I feel my life has been separated into a very clear “before” and “after.” With such a distinct break delineating the past from the future, I don’t really need any kind of prodding to start contrasting who I am with who I’ve been– it’s always on my mind. That said, after watching Paper Girls, I can’t help but think that my biggest takeaway is that introspection, that idea of wondering what it would be like to see a future me. Would it clear things up; relieve some of the ever-present anxiety of rebuilding a life from scratch? (Alright, maybe that’s a bit melodramatic, but you get the idea.)
Paper Girls is about that introspection, that leveling with yourself about who you are as a person, where your life is going, and what that means for you and you alone. It’s about taking an active role in your own life, choosing to move forward with every step instead of becoming complacent. It’s about growth. I know it’s a little wild to think that a coming-of-age story deals with themes of growth and individualism, but the story is built on such a solid emotional bedrock that it transcends the cliche. This is where the show excels in my opinion– the interaction between the core group of Erin, Mac, KJ, and Tiff is simply entrancing. It’s messy, it’s heartwarming, it’s real. I never had that sense of girlhood friendship growing up, but the show leaves me yearning for the raw emotionality and complicated friendship that’s presented therein. Paper Girls walks a tight line between madcap surrealist action and slow-burn character development, but that development refuses to be overshadowed by its flashier counterpart. Flashy it is, though! The color grading can be a little excessive at times, but it balances a sense of awe with stark realism in every shot. Music sequences are masterfully composed, with some of my favorite moments of the show being the atmospheric jam sessions establishing the environments our girls find themselves in.
One of the key components of the emotional journey undertaken by the show is the juxtaposition of our young heroes with their older counterparts, which brings me to the star of the show. The reason I’m here. What I’ve been waiting for this whole review to talk about. So the older KJ is gay, huh? Same, girl.
I really can’t articulate how hard this one specific scene hit me. As a trans woman, the idea of seeing into the future is simultaneously beautiful and haunting. How would my life have turned out if I had a head start? Had I known, for an absolute fact, that in 11 years, my life would be turned upside down but that I would be not only ok but thriving, where would that have taken me? To take it a step further, I can’t help but feel that the same notion could be applied to my life now. As much as I put on airs of having my life together, what would it be like now to see the future, see the investment I’m putting into myself now pay off? If you’ll excuse my chronic oversharing for a second, I’ve only been out as trans for a couple of months. I’m still figuring out what it means and what my life will be like moving forward. If I had guaranteed stability, would everything be easier? It’s hard to acknowledge, but all of this completely and exclusively boils down to the work I put into my own life. Am I happier now? I truly think so; I’ve been told by friends that I’m acting more like myself, but there’s always that pesky little shred of doubt, you know? Most of this isn’t relevant to Paper Girls in and of itself, but this is what the show has left me with. I think that’s more of a testament to its emotional resonance than any comment I could make about the way the girls grow on the rails of a script. It’s a chance to engage with the work— put myself into the hearts and minds of the characters and truly understand the story on a deeper level than I expected. I apologize for using this column as a makeshift therapy session but this is where I’m at, and I think there’s value in asking these questions in a positive space.
Not having read the book before watching Paper Girls, I was ecstatic to see it tackle a queer awakening head-on. Representation Matters, and to see one of the largest corporations in the world openly grappling with the idea of coming out, especially through the lens of a period piece, is thrilling. The platform this show has is massive, and I’m so excited that other girls (and boys and everyone else) will get to have the same journey I did with it.
The fact that Paper Girls offered me that space is more of an endorsement than anything else I could say about the show. It’s by no means a perfect show: I find the expansive time war plot, the main engine of the story, frankly lacking in substance and nebulous, with most of the background plot relegated to the season finale. Story threads are tied into nice bows, but to be honest, they feel unearned at best and out of nowhere at worst. I’m not sure if that’s an issue with the pacing of the show, or if it’s just a quirk of adaptation, a little too comic-booky in its presentation. I honestly don’t think that matters, though. The set pieces work well enough to get me to the point where I care about these characters, surprisingly so. I found myself engrossed in the lives of the girls, reacting viscerally to the barbs they throw at each other and comfortably settling into the joy they ultimately feel at each other’s company. I can’t speak to how well it holds up as an adaptation, but Paper Girls is an achievement in character writing, a monument to Getting Kids Right that should be held up, studied, and admired.
And now, a discussion on the show with Elle and Sophia
RS: Elle! Thanks so much for doing this with me, I would have been lost if I tried to review this by myself. As someone familiar with the original Paper Girls, how do you feel like the show compares?
EL: Hey Sophia! I’m stoked to team up for this review of Paper Girls! I loved what you had to say about your personal experiences and how that connected you to the show and its characters! Having read the comics series as it was originally coming out and again before watching it, I was curious to see how they would tackle adapting such an ambitious story. I think fans of the comic will be a little surprised at the number of changes–particularly with the plot–but overall I can understand why they chose to omit the parts that they did.
RS: It’s funny you mention the omissions from the original comic because one of the first things you said to me was that apparently, the show has a distinct shortage of dinosaurs.
EL: There are things I think every story can benefit from, and one of them is dinosaurs. Can you even have a time-travel show if dinosaurs aren’t involved at some point? Speaking of time travel, I know you mentioned that the sci-fi storyline was a little lacking–were there any particular elements you thought they could’ve improved upon?
RS: That’s a tricky question! I do think it comes down to personal taste more than anything else. Being the Hard Science Bitch that I am, I just wanted more of… everything I suppose. Without delving too deep into the reveals and machinations of the show’s time travel, it all felt a little nebulous. What are the RULES? How does the time travel even happen? We’re given a little taste of the wider picture, but I do hope in future seasons the show explains the scientific concepts a little better. Even from the start, I felt confused as to how the Hell Day travel occurred. I’m probably just being nitpicky, though. What matters is the vibe, and I think Paper Girls nails it in that regard.
EL: I agree with you there. A show that answers questions with more questions is fun and definitely keeps me engaged, but I think Paper Girls needed just a few more answers to really round out the season. Knowing how the story plays out in the comics, I felt like I had more answers and information than someone who’s watching it for the first time.
RS: That’s an interesting perspective! During our preparations, you mentioned that you felt the time travel was more of a B-plot in the show than in the comic, would you be able to speak to why that’s the case?
EL: Surprisingly, I didn’t mind the character-to-character relationships being at the forefront of the season. With a comic book, you only have so many panels and pages to get the story across, but you can relax a little more in a 45-minute episode of television. With more time and space (haha) to work with, the script has more room to develop its characters. Do I think the show could’ve balanced action and character development a little better? Yes. But did I also love the moments where the paper girls get to interact and build up their friendships? Absolutely. Not to mention a time-traveling family blowout in a Chili’s restaurant. This show has it all.
RS: If dinosaurs are crucial to your enjoyment of a story, family blowouts at a shitty chain restaurant are the same for me!
EL: Speaking of crucial moments–can we talk about the gay awakening in Paper Girls?
RS: You know I am always here to talk about lesbianism. It’s funny– the general rule we’re working with on spoilers is going by what’s in the trailer, so I went and watched it real quick before we started writing. The only thing I wanted to yell about was THAT KISS!! Shout out to Amazon for marketing to the gays. Now, you and the readers already know how I feel about that scene, but I’ll admit I was a little disappointed that we never got a ton of resolution (or even really any follow-up.) It certainly mattered, and KJ’s development is fascinating nonetheless, but it would have been nice to see it pushed to the forefront of her journey rather than being an undercurrent. I feel like I’ve been bogarting the gay here, did you have any thoughts you wanted to share?
EL: Only that I was also yelling, giggling, kicking my feet in the air about that kiss. I would agree, I could’ve used more resolution for KJ’s storyline. Without spoiling too much, each paper girl has a core dilemma to navigate as they try to figure out how to get back to 1988, but KJ’s seems to drift the closer the show gets to the finale?
RS: I do think there’s something to that drifting, though. I love the sense of shock and disorientation, her life is shattered and rebuilt into something stronger. I don’t want to ruin that storyline for anyone, but it felt emotionally vulnerable in a way that I really appreciated. That said, give. me. more. gay. Now, I wanted to ask about something you mentioned in your review. I didn’t notice the fashion sense as much as you did apparently. I thought the outfits were cute, but how do you think that fit into the presentation of the show as a whole?
EL: Well first off, hats off to the hair and costuming departments. Everyone looks like they stepped right out of the comic. I loved it!
RS: I will say, the one thing I know about the comic is the iconic cover of Mac, with that bob hanging down. The casting seemed well done, but as someone who has not read the book, being able to recognize a character I didn’t know is just incredible.
EL: I agree, the casting and costuming were absolutely on point. Did you notice the jackets on the villains? I feel like so often in film and television the villains are dressed in darker tones, but those light-reflecting coats they were wearing were really striking.
RS: I think that’s indicative of the direction for the whole show! Striking is the one word I would use to describe the cinematography, the music direction, and even the dialogue in a weird way! Everything just felt snappy and sleek in the best way.
EL: Absolutely. The score and soundtrack do a great job of feeling both nostalgic and futuristic at the same time. Now that you’ve seen the first season, I have to ask: anything you hope to see in season 2?
RS: Well it’s probably too much to ask for a character to be wearing a Hard Science Bitch t-shirt, but I have to say, I was intrigued by the way the story was left off. I think there is a ton of potential for both the Old Watch and STF to be fleshed out, and I think the dynamic between them is fascinating, with even more interesting angles being hinted at. Like I said before, just give me more! More science, more gay, more everything!
EL: Paper Girls season two: gays, dinosaurs, and science.
RS: I think we just wrote their tagline for them.