Paper Girls, a new Amazon Prime Original Series, presents an intriguing sci-fi story and a vision of the 1980s from the perspective of people the 80s really weren’t that great for. Based on the comic series of the same name, it follows 12-year-old Erin Tieng (Riley Lai Nelet) on her first morning delivering newspapers in the fictional suburb of Stony Stream, Ohio.
It’s the morning after Halloween 1988, and older teenagers are out causing trouble, so Erin joins some other girls for safety: Tiff (Camryn Jones), Mac (Sofia Rosinsky), and KJ (Fina Strazza). The girls quickly realise that teenagers egging houses is not the biggest threat they’re going to face as they get caught up in a time-travelling war and end up in 2019, where they meet the adult Erin (Ali Wong).
For a series centering on characters from the 80s, Paper Girls seems to go out of its way to avoid nostalgia. Some easy nostalgic symbols are there (Remember Walkmans? Remember Atari? Remember that one really good Danzig song?) but the series isn’t shy about the fact that the 80s was rough for a lot of people (Remember corporations moving their manufacturing facilities overseas? Remember Cold War paranoia? Remember the suspicion that would be directed at people of colour and the LGBTQIA+ community?).
Paper Girls revels in a fun kids-on-bikes aesthetic that reminds us of some of the great things to come out of that period of history, but also points to the hardships and isolation that the culture of the time would bring. Since Erin’s father died, her mother has been alone in the world, struggling to learn English and having nobody but her children to speak Mandarin with.
Erin shyly explains to her new friends, ‘our neighbours don’t like us,’ efficiently painting a picture of what the Tiengs’ life in America has been like.
One aspect the show handles very well is the complicated ways that bigotry operates. The series deals with out-of-date prejudices in the context they came from, but refuses to excuse bad behaviour as being just a product of its time. Unlike the other three girls, who take on the paper route for extra cash and work experience, Mac needs money because her family is struggling to get by now that her father is losing work.
Mac, like her father, doesn’t blame the car company for cutting manufacturing jobs but directs her anger at the Japanese for ‘stealing’ American jobs and Jews for ‘running the banks’ until KJ calls Mac out on her racism. Mac might think she’s railing against people with power but in reality she’s contributing to the antisemitism and racism that hurts people like KJ, Tiff, and Erin.
While the girls are trying to get to their own time and cope with what each of them learns about their own futures, a war for the future of humanity is raging around them, just out of sight, and there are hints that they might play a part in it. A powerful group with access to time travel technology is putting all their efforts into preserving a version of the timeline that lets them hold on to that power, and a resistance that fights for justice is outgunned and losing ground.
The science fiction happenings are intriguing and exciting to watch, lending life-or-death stakes to the plot, but what really gives the series its heart is the relationship between the girls that evolves over the course of the season.
The script is sincere and heartfelt in depicting a group of pre-teen girls trying to make friends while coping with impossible circumstances. The series never lets the audience forget that, even though these girls have been sent on a sci-fi adventure, they’re just kids. They’re all hoping that the adults in 2019 will take charge and send them home, but Adult Erin is barely equipped for her own problems, let alone the time-travelling war that just showed up in her house.
It would be easy to compare Paper Girls with Netflix’s Stranger Things, but doing so would be underselling both series. Both feature kids riding their bikes while a spooky mystery and soundtrack of 80s bangers unfolds around them, but that’s only the surface of each series. Nostalgia might be an aesthetic draw for Paper Girls, but beyond references to E.T. and Growing Pains, the real heart of the series is the relationships between the characters.
Before revealing the stakes of the spooky mystery that propels the plot, Paper Girls takes the time to make us care about the characters and what they have to gain or lose. At once a time-travel mystery and coming-of-age story, Paper Girls is well worth a watch, and I’m certainly hoping it gets a second season.
USA, 8 episodes
Created by: Stephany Folsom
Based on the comics by Brian K. Vaughan, Cliff Chiang, Matt Wilson, and Jared K. Fletcher
Production Companies: Future Investigations, Sorry Dave Productions, Sic Semper Tyrannis, Plan B Productions, Legendary Television, Amazon Studios
Paper Girls is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.