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Wednesday, August 17, 2022

The best new time-travel show since ‘Dark’

Don’t let the tweens on bikes pedaling through the glowing haze of the ‘80s fool you. The resemblance between Paper Girls and Stranger Things stops there.

Four paper girls — Erin, Mac, Tiffany, and KJ — are on their early-morning delivery route in suburban Ohio when they’re suddenly caught in the midst of a time war between rival factions from the future. Transported from 1988 to 2019, the paper girls encounter the grown-up versions of themselves while struggling to find a way back home.

The Amazon Prime show deviates ever so slightly away from the graphic novel, but it’s a spirited adaptation that captures the same feeling of youthful camaraderie and adventure you get in the source material.

Paper Girls also stars comedian Ali Wong as Erin Tieng, Nate Corddry, and Adina Porter, with Sofia Rosinsky, Camryn Jones, Riley Lai Nelet, and Fina Strazza portraying the four protagonists. Jason Mantzoukas is also a recurring character who, like Wong, is known best for being a comedian, but plays a darker and more dramatic role that defies audience expectations.

Amazon’s production team faithfully captures the vaporwave aesthetics of artist Cliff Chiang and colorist Matt Wilson’s breathtaking illustrations. Admittedly, Paper Girls struggles a bit from a modest budget and could have been greatly improved with better special effects, but it makes do with what it has.

Like the comics, Paper Girls represents a diverse array of backgrounds in its cast and topics in its narrative ranging from homosexuality, immigration, adoption, antisemitism, and religion, among others. Mental health and trauma — both past and present — are discussed openly as the girls get to know one another.

Ali Wong meets her younger time-traveling self in Paper Girls.Amazon

All of that gravitas and nuance is still there, and it’s done superbly well. The writers — comic co-creators Brian K. Vaughan and Chiang, along with Stephanie Folsom and Fola Goke-Pariola — clearly understood the assignment. Sensitive subjects are tackled realistically and given their fair do, while the script grasps the vernacular of your typical 12-year-olds.

Mac drops F-bombs on the fly because she, like most tweens, thinks they’re cool. As the stereotypically racist “white trash” character, Mac also uses slurs and believes in regressive concepts that were “accepted” in the ‘80s and would have likely been repeated in her conservative household. As in the comics, characters like KJ and Tiffany call out her offensive behavior, but they also offer a thoughtful explanation of how homophobia and xenophobia are hurtful.

When the protagonists wind up face-to-face with their older selves, the torrent of insults and blunt observations they deliver is nothing short of ruthless. Big Erin (played by Wong) gets absolutely roasted by all of the girls, including Young Erin (Nelet) who vocally expresses her disbelief that she grows up to be such a loser at 45 years old.

Amid the far-fetched sci-fi stakes of the overall plot, the girls still find time to giggle about hamsters, talk tampons, and geek out over video games, which grounds the transtemporal story enough to make you relate and care about these believable tweens. Not only is their dialogue realistic, but the actors themselves look the part. You don’t get any 24-year-olds struggling to pass as someone half their age. And the adult actors share uncanny physical resemblances with their younger selves.

Unlike the complex and interwoven time-travel in Dark or the trippy timelines of Westworld, the time-skipping in Paper Girls mostly makes sense. Time jumps keep you on your toes, but the overall execution is surprisingly comprehensible. The first two episodes are the most puzzling, but you’re in good company as the four girls freak out about being stuck in the future without understanding how or why. Their confusion is yours as both viewer and the characters uncover the mystery. It won’t be the end of chaos either — Paper Girls is the rare time-travel show that actually takes advantage of its premise and throws dinosaurs into the mix.

As such, Paper Girls is a zesty ride for viewers that almost never takes it too far. Adults and tweens alike will get a kick journeying through the decades with Erin, Mac, Tiffany, and KJ, watching the four strangers become steadfast friends in the process. There are some things you can’t share without ending up liking each other, and one of them is apparently traveling through time to gawk at your older selves before pedaling away into the night.

Like the comics, Paper Girls not only has queer representation but also presents the pervasive attitudes about homosexuality in the ‘80s through the early aughts without rose-tinted glasses. Image Comics

Paper Girls is streaming now on Amazon Prime.

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