Paper Girls Review: A Wonderful, Weird Expansion of One of Comics' Best Series

Nostalgia has become a tricky thing in our popular culture in recent years, with projects such as Stranger Things making the ins-and-outs of 1980s iconography cool once again. A lot could be said about why that nostalgia has become so appealing to audiences — for older viewers, it might involve lamenting the loss of who they were in that decade, while newer viewers might be left imagining who they could have been if they were only born in that era. Both sides of this ethos end up being at the center of Paper Girls, Prime Video's long-awaited television adaptation of the Image Comics series of the same name. Alongside that exploration of nostalgia, Paper Girls proves to be a scrappy, emotional, and downright thrilling coming-of-age story, one that will please and surprise both diehard fans and new adventurers.

Paper Girls follows Erin Tieng (Riley Lai Nelet), Mac Coyle (Sofia Rosinsky), Tiffany Quilkin (Camryn Jones), and KJ Brandman (Fina Strazza), four newspaper delivery girls who form an unlikely alliance while on the job on the morning of November 1, 1988. Through a chaotic series of events, the girls are accidentally transported into present-day 2019, and are subsequently sucked into a war between two factions of futuristic time-travelers. As the girls' attempt to get home grows increasingly complicated, they also begin to discover many things about themselves, their pasts, and their potential futures.

With its bike-riding adventures and its sprinkles of 1980s pop culture, Paper Girls will undeniably draw comparisons to the aforementioned Stranger Things — a comparison that was already placed upon Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang's original comic when it first launched in 2015. While fans of the Netflix juggernaut, and of other '80s-themed fare like IT and Ghostbusters, will (and should) gravitate to Paper Girls, it feels like a disservice to pigeonhole the adaptation in a fondness for any single era. Part of this is thanks to the fact that the television series jumps to a wider swath of places in time, creating a more nebulous push and pull between the safeties of the past and the possibilities of the future. What ultimately ends up working in Paper Girls' favor is the undeniable emotional core at its center, which only grows more satisfying as the first season goes along. Each of the four girls occupies an identifiable trope from '80s media, whether it be Tiffany as the precocious genius or Mac as the devil-may-care cool girl — but each character is given the space across the series to become so much more. Once some of the girls cross paths with their counterparts from another era, seeing how they do so and how it profoundly impacts their own sense of self, proves to be one of the biggest joys of the entire series. That joy also comes from the fact that the writing of Paper Girls never once gets overcome by self-aware irony or obviousness, letting each pivotal character moment feel genuinely authentic and cathartic, even as it is occurring in a larger-than-life context.

That authenticity can be seen in practically every single frame of Paper Girls, and leads to one of the most unique creative decisions that the series makes — the decision to expand upon and slightly diverge from the mythos of the comic. Whether as a way to stretch the plot into a multi-season arc or as a way to film the series amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the show takes detours that might not have quite worked within the comic, but create a much more consistent pacing for a season of television. Along the way, each episode finds a way to truly matter, whether through showcasing a significant character dynamic or through blowing the proverbial doors off of the show's own time-travel stakes. It might leave some fans, especially those who are used to the comic's quickly escalating plot, feeling a little underwhelmed, but that only allows for the quiet beauty of some of the series' more understated moments to really stick with you.

By far, the most marvelous components of Paper Girls is easily its ensemble cast, which is put together with a stunning accuracy and reverence for the source material. Jones, Nelet, Rosinsky, and Strazza all have star-making performances as the core characters, and their energy as a quartet is infectious to watch. At the same time, each actress gets a sufficient and surprising amount of time to really put their stamp on the character, to the point where comic readers will find it impossible to separate the page and screen incarnations. Without getting into spoilers, the older counterparts of the girls are excellent complements, particularly Ali Wong as a relatable and genre-bending take on an adult version of Erin. Adina Porter shines as the Prioress, a complicated and antagonistic component of the time travel war. And few comic book castings have hit the nail on the head quite like Jason Mantzoukas as Grandfather, a memorable figure from the comics who becomes a bonafide scene-stealer with Mantzoukas' comedic timing.

The aesthetic of Paper Girls might be one of the most surprising components of the series, as it captures the energy of the source material without getting swallowed up by it. The costume design by Marci Rodgers and Solomon Fobb could not possibly be more comic-accurate, while adding some fun flourishes as the series goes on. (A genuinely good joke about Dave Matthews Band t-shirts can be found in one of the early episodes.) The approach to the more futuristic elements of the series might divide fans — it can get understated at moments, and the series doesn't immediately jump into the pterodactyl-filled bonanza of the first few arcs of the source material, but when Paper Girls' aesthetic gets weird, it does so brilliantly, and with a stunning attention to detail with regards to adapting Chiang's distinct art style and original designs. 

While elements of Prime Video's Paper Girls might not be as immediately polished as the comic, there's a compelling and incredibly watchable beauty within that. To an extent, the show subtly sets a new gold standard for what comic book TV adaptations can achieve — simultaneously evoking the already-great source material, while also celebrating the prospects that its core story can still have. Much like each of the four main characters of Paper Girls are coming to terms with the possibilities of their own lives, the show's first season is also reveling in its own potential, and here's hoping we can see it fully realized.

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Rating: 4 out of 5

New episodes of Paper Girls will debut weekly on Prime Video.