There’s a lot of sci-fi on television these days, and like its bigger siblings in theater, much of it relies on special effects and/or the built-in benefit of belonging to an expanded, mutually beneficial universe. Castles are built on clichés for reasons that can seem both expedient and lazy; Plot and mythology can take precedence over character and relationships, which are often hinted at rather than depicted. That seems to be a recipe for success.
This isn’t Paper Girls, which premieres Friday on Prime Video. I have no idea if it will draw the audience it deserves or who exactly that audience might be. (That Prime has embargoed reviews until release date suggests it might have doubts of its own.) Developed by Stephany Folsom from a comic by Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang, and counting “Halt and Catch Fire” by Christopher C. Rogers and Chris Cantwell as showrunners is all about a quartet of 12-year-olds. But the ideas are mature and involve identity, memory and youthful aspirations literally juxtaposed with adult reality, and more subtly than usual it is about loss and death. Between occasional bursts of action, the pace remains leisurely, with room for stillness; There’s very little spectacle, and much of what there is shows the modesty of its budget. Still, I’d rank it as one of the best shows of the year for what it gets right and doesn’t mind, the intelligence of the writing and the natural flow of its dialogues, and the impressively deep performances from its phenomenally talented young cast — none real 12 year olds, but almost enough.
Given that it starts in the 1980s – it’s a time travel show, so it doesn’t stay there long – and involves young people in the midst of sci-fi forces, the series is sure to be compared to Stranger Things; the comic was it. The sci-fi elements frame the story, create dangers, pull the protagonists together and allow for encounters that are not possible according to the laws of physics as we currently understand them.
As with all time travel stories, it’s useless to try and make sense of it; and like all science fiction, it requires a certain level of simple participation. But the show is emotionally coherent, and the ratio of sci-fi set pieces to ordinary human interaction is low anyway; Conversation and significant silences carry the show and set it apart from its genre relatives. Overall, his tone and group dynamics remind me more of a show like Reservation Dogs than Stranger Things.
The series (after a brief, tense prologue) begins slowly, even poetically, as the four heroines wake up early to deliver pre-dawn newspapers in a fictional Cleveland suburb called Stony Stream, and take to the dark, empty streets with their bikes drive. There’s Mac (Sofia Rosinsky), a child of poverty who talks and is tough (if not as tough); smart Tiffany, nicknamed Tiff (Camryn Jones), who has her sights set on MIT; the soft-spoken KJ (Fina Strazza), who carries a hockey stick; and Erin (Riley Lai Nelet), on her first day at work, and who is called “new girl” for a while. Every actress makes her own kind of music; there is nothing general about their characters.
It’s November 1st, 1988, Hell Day, a post-Halloween riot of pranks, vandalism and bullying that leads the four, who previously didn’t know or barely know each other, to band together. As in the comic, they are a diverse group; Erin is Chinese, Tiff is Black, and KJ is Jewish; Mac, being white, starts out with some inherited bad ideas about Japanese taking factory jobs and Jews having money. The series gives them time to get to know each other, which takes some work.
“Have you ever heard of the Holocaust?” KJ asks after Mac shares her privilege.
“Oh, leave me alone,” Mac replies.
“Ask my grandmother. I’m sure she really enjoyed it.”
“This is not Nazi Germany.”
“Yet someone wrote ‘Jew B—’ on my locker last year.”
“I wouldn’t,” says KJ after a pause. “I wouldn’t do that.”
In a somewhat confusing spate of events, they are kidnapped, or perhaps rescued, by a bunch of black-clad teenagers and end up stranded in 2019. Your kidnappers/rescuers will also turn out to be members of the Standard Time Fighters called the Underground, who in this scenario would be the Rebel Alliance at war with the Old Watch, your surrogate for the Empire; Their skirmishes take place throughout history. As explained by Larry (Nate Corddry), a 20th-century recruit whose path the girls cross, the Old Watch has banned time travel to maintain their privileged position in the distant year they took power, while the STF seeks to rectify history in the Striving for a fairer future for all. There is some leeway to doubt this account, and something in this long-running dispute we should perhaps regard as a Swiftian absurdity; However, the Old Guard’s violent behavior and the fact that they view time travel as a felony and put the girls in danger tend to brand them as the bad guys.
As in a Shakespearean play, the armies at war are portrayed by a handful of actors; As they run through the forest in their contrasting costumes and shoot their ray guns, they appear a bit like LARPers. But for much of the series, the Old Watch is represented by a lonely, single-minded soldier (Adina Porter) who shows up in various wigs and costumes, often with an appropriate gift of food, as she stalks the girls. She is eventually joined by Jason Mantzoukas of all people as her boss in a Tupac t-shirt, menacing yet comical – which, paradoxically, makes him even more menacing.
Searching for shelter and unaware of their time difference, the girls follow Erin to her house, where she meets her future self (Ali Wong), who still lives there and hasn’t achieved any of young Erin’s dreams. (She envisioned herself as a senator and a mother of four.) Each girl will face her own, perhaps not immutable, fate, leading in different ways to disappointment, hope, confusion, conflict, collaboration, and some comedy. Add to that the reliable humor of people from the past meeting the gizmos and customs of the future. (Young Tiff brought into a late 1990s coffeehouse by her older self: “Why is the furniture so old?”)
Our protagonists prove unusual, if not incredibly resourceful, in their attempts to evade capture, return to their own time, and fend for themselves. (Well, Tiff is a little prodigy.) And it should be noted that they swear like sailors, which is not uncommon among teenagers but some parents might still find disconcerting. But they are also young, impressionable, uneducated and uninformed; A long, finely rendered (but not unfunny) passage is about Erin getting her first period and the four of them trying to figure out what to do about it. (Like I said, not your average sci-fi show.) The tragedy doesn’t evaporate with the scene that follows, and undivided secrets weigh on the bearer. They won’t always get along, but they will always find each other.
Although the girls are from the 1980’s and set scenes in the late 1990’s, the series draws on nostalgic and pop culture references. There is a lovely passage where Erin, Tiff and KJ recall seeing Debbie Gibson at the abandoned mall where they are taking refuge. (Mac isn’t a fan.) There are mentions of Kirk Cameron, “Growing Pains” and “Alf”. There are a few references to The Wizard of Oz (the girls are trying to get home). Stanley Kubrick gets some love. Inevitably, some bits will reference or be reminiscent of other sci-fi stories and genres – there are mostly fighting mechas and some echoes of the “Terminator” movies – but “Paper Girls” is mostly its own thing; Importantly, it doesn’t feel burdened with the kind of front-office intrusions that can turn a potentially difficult original property into something more obvious and universally accessible. In, say, the next Stranger Things. But this is better.
Where: Amazon Prime
When: At any time
Valuation: 16+ (May not be suitable for under 16s)
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/tv/story/2022-07-29/paper-girls-amazon-prime-video-stranger-things-review ‘Paper Girls’ TV show isn’t ‘Stranger Things.’ It’s better