Aside from the current influx of edgy nursery rhyme pop remixes, the worst thing that happens to childhood is, without a doubt, the swift, humbling devastation of adulthood. Slowly but surely, the marine biology daydreams of middle school become froyo job applicants hungry for a master’s degree. The music of youth — my favorite was Ashlee Simpson’s debut album, Autobiography (pre-lip sync scandal) — becomes, over time, someone-your-age’s child’s uncool oldie, a dusty relic pointing back to the Mesozoic era when an iPod had no screen. Such is the conundrum at the center of Paper Girls: Why is my older self so extraordinarily dull? How come my older self’s apartment lacks the presence of a Nobel Prize, or even a laundry unit? And how come we’re still renting? The hard pill response to all of these inquiries is the echo of one’s own asking. Adulthood sucks because it couldn’t care less about your dreams or wants. It simply looms above you in perpetuity. Kind of like tax season.
Amazon’s Paper Girls, a somewhat faithful adaptation of the well-loved comic by Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang, is, amidst its hammy sci-fi dressings, a tender story about girlhood and uncertainty, of becoming and eventual unbecoming. Like its small yet mighty leads, the show oscillates between nostalgic ’80s coming-of-age yearning and bizarro intergalactic theater, wherein youth must confront the flicker of 2000s tech-store fluorescents, the awkward confidence of ’90s rave culture, and the dreaded and jaded older self, head-on. Across the season’s eight episodes, time is shattered alongside walkie-talkies, college dreams, sibling hatred, the uterine lining, and heterosexuality to boot.
Our titular paper girls — Mac (Sofia Rosinsky), Tiffany (Camryn Jones), Erin (Riley Lai Nelet), and KJ (Fina Strazza) — begin their journey in 1988. Not friends but also not strangers, the girls adopt a buddy system on their routes to help avoid altercations with aggressive neighborhood boys, until, in the middle of an escape, they chance upon… aliens. Suddenly thrust into a future where the sky oozes a syrupy Pepto Bismol pink, the paper girls expedite their friendship for survival purposes and attempt to return home to the ’80s. The problem is, being children, they can’t simply walk to the nearest Motel 6 and buy a room for the night.
Thus begins a series of encounters with their older selves in exchange for a roof over their heads as they try not to lose hope of ever returning back to the bikes they abandoned in the past’s suburbia. Oh, and they’ve inadvertently time jumped into the middle of a space war between veiny-faced spaceship technicians and pterodactyl-controlling overseers. And while the politics of said war remain shadowed in obscurity, the girls become enemy number one simply by being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
But for a show that thrusts hulking battle robots, dinosaurs, time travel, and intergalactic murder at the viewer like a preteen in need of a babysitter, Paper Girls works best when the girls are grappling with the classic conundrum of being old enough to know what one desires, but too young to fully understand how to take hold of it. For Mac, a troubled, tough-talking wannabe punk doing her best Jane Lane cosplay, happiness looks like household stability and a guarantee that food will be present on the table for her at night. Played to snarky perfection by Rosinsky, Mac’s narrative arc is perhaps the heaviest — unlike the other girls, she doesn’t get the luxury of participating in a meet-and-greet with her older self. In less capable hands, Mac’s storyline could easily veer into after-school special territory, but Rosinsky never allows Mac to dissolve into cliche tear-jerker histrionics written specifically for Emmy Awards clips. Mac is steely in her resolve for a better life, and for a purpose to hinge it upon. By the end of the season’s cacophonic and slightly overstuffed doomsday proceedings, Mac emerges as the show’s most fully realized heroine.
This isn’t to say that the other girls aren’t handed their fair share of growing pains. For KJ, a rich kid struggling with confidence and self-articulation, growing up means accepting the fact that one’s present knowledge of the self might look completely different come morning. Watching her older self from a distance, KJ is forced to reckon with a queerness she has only just begun to poke at as a teen. Strazza’s nervy performance acutely captures the repressive state of adolescence as it pertains to the coming-out process. She is at once trapped presently within the kind of social expectations that would see her closeted and tight-lipped forever, and achingly aware of her future self’s unconscious approach to romance and self-liberation. Her silent expressions do more to suggest that it does really get better for queer youth more than any Dan Savage video campaign she’ll have to suffer through once the 2010s roll around.
Also great is Jones as Tiffany, a strong-minded brainiac with dreams of MIT and valedictorian speeches. Her conversations with her older self — a dropout DJ with a sick apartment — are sobering in their truths about institutional racism and what it means to be Black in predominately and historically white spaces. Jones capably handles the newsflash of her adult life with a stubborn defiance, indicating that her future might not yet fully be set in stone.
And then there’s young Erin, the newest paper girl on the block. In Nelet’s capable hands, Erin navigates the treacherous terrain of adulthood with equal parts confidence and naivety. Her coming-of-age leads to some of the series’ more tender moments, such as when she and the rest of the girls struggle to figure out the strange dimensions of a tampon and how to use it. Her strength emerges most in conversation with her older self, played by the always wonderful Ali Wong, acting against type in a raw, dressed-down performance every stand-up comedian must be contractually obligated to fulfill at least once in their career. Thankfully, she nails adult Erin’s joyless arrested development with the air of a seasoned couch-surfer. Wong’s Erin is stuck in every sense of the word. She still lives in the house she grew up in, balancing on a tightrope of simmering familial resentments and a longing for something more, something just out of reach that will push her back into the driver’s seat of her life.
In a series where the adults are mostly utilized as mirrors reflecting back to their child selves the crushing and unpredictable truths of aging, adult Erin proves that growing up is a continuous project of new, sometimes frustrating, beginnings. It is only when confronted with the specter of their younger selves that the older paper girls are able to confront who they were as children, and thus map out the stretch of distance between the past and present. What happens when the rear view catches up with you? For some, a conversation ensues regarding unrealized goals and shifts in worldly perspectives that can only come from aging. For others, the confrontation between then and now becomes a much-needed wake-up call to radically transform the trajectory of their lives.
But while each actor pulls their weight — there’s not a weak link among them — they are repeatedly let down by shoddy visuals that pale in comparison to their source material. What made Vaughan and Chiang’s comic series so lovable, aside from the characters at the heart of it, was the erratic visual excess of every page, a cotton-candy fever dream of neon hues and dazzling machinery. You won’t find such spectacle here. Save for a few fun visual effect moments pertaining to a dinosaur’s monstrous mouthbeak, Paper Girls the show suffers from dully lit locations and underwhelming visions of the future. It’s hard not to wonder what kind of visual magic might’ve happened on screen if the show had a Stranger Things budget, or if the live-action proceedings were animated instead of rendered in the flesh.
As such, we are left with one of the blandest giant robot fights to ever hit the small screen. The sequence is thankfully short, but it stands out in the worst of ways; you’ll find more action and imagination watching a 7-year-old play with Bionicles on the carpet. The villains, and their motivations, are also thinly drawn, to the point where I often forgot the girls were being pursued in the first place. The tensions of the show can be felt more tangibly during the emotional excavations performed by the girls themselves, as they strive to become bigger than the unsatisfactory futures they’ve witnessed play out in front of them. Paper Girls is at its best when it leans into the angst and worries of its central four as they huddle together to argue, cry, laugh, and scheme. If you’re looking for a story hellbent on shoving visual excess into your corneas, I’d suggest picking up the paper copy. But if you’re looking for a show that understands the absolute devastation of girlhood and holds it up next to a belief in second chances, you could do a lot worse than Paper Girls.