Much has been written about the similarities between Stranger Things and the live-action adaptation of Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang’s beloved comic series, Paper Girls. Both shows are set in the suburban Midwest of the 1980s. Both showcase an ensemble cast comprised of four young teens. Both interweave elements of sci-fi, urban fantasy, action-adventure, and suspense. Both prominently feature iconic imagery of kids on bikes.
On the surface, the similarities are striking. On a deeper level, the differences are far more exciting.
The first and most obvious difference is enumerated right in the title. Historically, from Stand by Me to Heartstopper, the classic cinematic coming-of-age story has centered on white male protagonists. In both the comic and the live-action series, by contrast, the titular paper girls bring a wealth of different cultural perspectives, personality traits, and lived experiences. As Chiang himself said recently, “To be able to tell a story featuring an Asian-American character that’s not necessarily an immigrant story…I kind of didn’t realize how much I needed that until I was drawing it.”
Ironically, though the publication of the Paper Girls comic predated the release of Stranger Things by a full nine months, in many ways Paper Girls feels like a more inclusive, contemporary take on the cultural shortcomings of a bygone era. “We wanted to do something that was anti-nostalgic,” said Vaughan recently, “[a series] that was about recognizing we’ve actually made a lot of progress and it’s worth pushing forward and looking ahead, not constantly dwelling in the past. So even though some of our show takes place in the ‘80s, it isn’t so much a love letter as it is a death threat.”
The story begins in the pre-dawn hours of Hell Day — aka November 1st, the day after Halloween. Tiffany, Mac, KJ and Erin are in the midst of their respective paper routes when KJ is targeted by a group of costumed teen boys who ooze a disturbing level of toxic masculinity. Disillusioned by a world rife with casual racism and misogyny, these fierce young women are sick of all the bullshit and decide to fight back. In the mayhem that quickly ensues, our protagonists unwittingly find themselves caught in a war between two rival factions of time travelers and end up being transported to the year 2019.
The opening scenes and much of the pilot may be set in 1988, but after the girls find themselves caught in a literal crossfire between the STF Underground (Standard Time Fighters) and the Old Guard, the bulk of the series takes place in the paper girls’ future — creating an unusual, highly compelling dynamic. One moment the younger girl essentially parents her older self, while the older, adult version makes excuses and tries to explain how her younger self doesn’t get it.
Glued to a video of older Tiffany’s high school graduation, younger Tiffany says, “This speech is amazing. We’re valedictorian. We’re about to go to MIT. I am literally watching one of my dreams come true. Even if Dad’s camera work kind of makes me dizzy.” Older Tiff interjects coldly, bringing things back down to earth, “That girl in the video? She’s about to get hit with a Mack truck full of reality.”
While the girls’ quest to get home and live out their dreams drives the plot, the real story takes place in the quiet moments when each of the girls tries to come to terms with a future life that looks and feels quite different from the one they currently imagine. It’s a simple, brilliant twist on the typical time travel story. The future is a foregone conclusion. Instead of traveling back to the past to fix or change something, our protagonists are trapped in a future they can’t remember and didn’t create — like getting hit by a truck without celebrating the highlights. Tiff describes their dilemma in a later episode: “We didn’t ask for this, but now we’re here, in a random time that isn’t ours and who knows if we’ll ever get home.”
In the original comic series, Vaughan and Chiang created a likable, captivating quartet of fully realized characters. In the live-action adaptation, Camryn Jones (Tiff), Sofia Rosinsky (Mac), Fina Strazza (KJ), and Riley Lai Nelet (Erin) take things to a whole new level. “These young performers are some of the best younger actors I’ve ever seen,” said Vaughan recently. “This show really takes such advantage of the medium.”
With more time and space to work with, the ensemble cast expertly plumbs the depths of their collective dilemma while delivering very solid, nuanced performances. As actors and characters both, the girls have great rapport with each other and their older selves.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, with so much screen time devoted to exploring relationships between the girls and their future selves, action scenes tend to feel pretty few and far between. The middle episodes, in particular, spend substantial chunks of time intensely focused on each girl’s individual story. For those who want more spectacle, things may tend to drag. Similarly, if for whatever reason you don’t exactly vibe with one or more of the characters, their sections may feel like tangents or trips down the rabbit hole.
We also don’t get much in the way of how time travel works in this story universe. I’m not asking for a grad school lecture of the quantum mechanics of self-originating causal loops, but as far as I can tell, by the end of episode 8 we still don’t know if the girls’ former timeline even exists. Did the act of time travel itself obliterate their former timeline? Is this a multiverse? Or is there only one self-correcting timeline that continually resets itself? Tiff’s quest to get back home feels a lot less urgent if there isn’t a home to go back to.
We know there are things called foldings and subsequent “Class Two Time Rips,” but it’s not yet clear how they work or where they go—much less how they’re accessed. We only have hints and glimpses. “Physicists have been saying time travel is theoretically impossible because the second law of thermodynamics says time only moves forward,” older Tiff tells her younger self as they consult some kind of log book. “Not to mention quantum divergences where you have closed time-like curves and whatnot…. But now, you and I are about to just find out actually how to do it.” Whatever the Tiffs discover, it still feels like a long way off.
On the strength of its acting alone, Paper Girls does a spectacular job exploring the human impact of time travel. As a philosophical meditation on the choices we make and how our lives progress from point A to point B, it’s very well done and compelling. As writer and co-creator Brian K. Vaughan, “If you’ve never heard of Paper Girls, if you’re not familiar with this comic, then the show is still 100 percent accessible and I think you will love it.”
Ironically, you may like the series more if you’ve never read the comic. Prime Video’s adaptation of Paper Girls breaks new ground and succeeds on multiple levels. At the same time, it might not be what you were expecting. If you’re looking for spectacle—like tardigrades as big as a house and prehistoric raptors—you my feel like something is missing. On the other hand, if you crave a well written, human-centered story powered by brilliant acting, Paper Girls will be one of your new favorite series. As artist Cliff Chiang notes, “Between Erin and Tiffany, K.J. and Mac, there’s such a great diversity within the group of personalities. I think it’s easy to find yourself in one of them, if not all of them.”
All eight episodes of Paper Girls will be available on Prime Video beginning Friday, July 29.
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