Paper Girls has a lot to overcome as it separates itself from Stranger Things. Like the hit Netflix series, the science fiction drama follows four preteens as they entangle themselves with supernatural forces that are larger than themselves. Both shows take place in the 1980s and include children fighting dastardly adults that are up to no good. They also feature a fictional suburban town that reeks of classic Steven Spielberg. However, the new Prime Video show manages to distinguish itself by exploring the harrowing realization that meeting the adult version of yourself through time travel and hijinks kind of sucks.
However, casual viewers may see Paper Girls as a weaker version of Stranger Things, especially those unaware the show is an adaptation of an award-winning comic book series written by Brian K. Vaughan and illustrated by Cliff Chiang. Though “Growing Pains” does start strong with its introduction of the young preteen girls, the episode falters due to its confusing action sequences and overstuffed plot points.
The episode begins in Stony Stream, a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. Erin (the incredibly talented and funny Ali Wong) sits on her bed while drinking straight out of a bottle of wine. As she wallows in self-pity and broken dreams, the lights blackout the entire area, and the sky turns neon pink. Her situation worsens when a group of young punks breaks into her house. Alarmed and worried for her safety, Wong heads into the kitchen with only a curtain rod in her hand and a stern voice.
The YA drama rewinds to November 1, 1988. Erin (Riley Lai Nelet), now 12, wakes up early in the morning to deliver papers for the Cleveland Preserver. It is the young Chinese girl’s first day as a paper girl, and she starts on Hell Day—or, the day after Halloween. As she rolls up her stack of papers into tight rubber bands, the scene cuts to the three remaining paper girls as they prepare for their grueling day. In this montage, Tiffany’s mom (Kellee Stewart), a Black doctor, drags her daughter (Camryn Jones) out of bed. Elsewhere, KJ (Fina Strazza) begrudgingly rips a note from a pink dress her mother purchased for Shabbat, and Mac (Sofia Rosinsky) steals a pack of smokes from her passed-out stepmother.
These scenes work as it provides a quick but effective introduction to the four tweens. Within the first 15 minutes, Paper Girls identifies the social, economic, and racial differences between the quartet, particularly when the girls size each other up after stopping a teenager named Wally from harassing them. Despite the bubbling tensions among the girls, Erin convinces her colleagues that delivering the papers as a group is better than going at it alone on Hell Night. Why side-eye each other for being too rich, poor, or nonwhite when you can take down the boys who taunt you?
It also helps that the leads give decent performances in Paper Girls. Of course, their acting is not at the same caliber as a precocious Disney Channel child star, but these performers are doing a much better job than most of the folks on the CW. Nelet is a star in the making with her take on Erin. The rage, frustration, and loneliness of being the only immigrant kid living in a predominately white suburb are subtle, but it is not hard to miss. Jones and Strazza have a lot of material to work with since scriptwriter Stephany Folsom gives their characters more personality than in the comics. Rosinsky also captures Mac’s bravado, but her profanity can be a bit precious.
That said, “Growing Pains” unravels during the second half of the episode. It is hard to describe what happens since the next series of events are confusing. The action takes off when two masked figures tackle Erin to the ground as she rides her bike with the other paper girls. During the altercation, the young men steal a walkie-talkie Erin received from Tiffany. Believing it is Wally and his goons, the girls chase the thieves to an under-constructed house. Yet, when they arrive, the foursome quickly realizes their target is not Wally. Taking advantage of their confusion, the delinquent scrambles away with the goods.
Suddenly, the entire neighborhood blacks out, and the sky turns neon pink. Scared and bewildered, the foursome heads to Mac’s house to figure out what is going on. Since the girls are a product of their times, they assume the aggressors are aliens or Russians. Chaos ensues when Mac grabs her father’s loaded gun, and the chain smoker accidentally hits Erin in the chest.
Within seconds, Tiffany (who had only experienced driving in a parking lot) volunteers to take everyone to her mother’s hospital. Shockingly, a group of futuristic soldiers in white gear intercepts the vehicle. The comic books refer to these people as the Old-Timers, but Paper Girls does not reveal their names. Urg. Fortunately, the masked figures, also known as the Teenagers, come to the girl’s rescue by dragging them into their time machine. Throughout all the insanity, Erin has a trippy dream about Ronald Reagan. Weird, right? Well, the following scenes get more confounding from here.
Thanks to the time travelers’ advanced technology, Erin’s injuries heal immediately. Yet, the young girl is still in danger since she must navigate a violent gunfight between the two time-traveling factions. Luckily, the girls use their wits to escape unharmed, but it comes with a high cost. After the intense battle, the girls run away to Erin’s house, where they meet the woman at the beginning of the episode—adult Erin. It only takes a few seconds for the child and adult to realize they are the same person since the photographs on the refrigerator feature Erin and her mother.
One reason the action sequences drag in “Growing Pains” is that it tries but fails to squeeze the first five issues of the comic into the pilot. By condensing so much plot into a 30-plus minute episode, the series loses out on character development and structure. Of course, Paper Girls does not need to hold their audience’s hand. However, it may help the series if they announce the names of the time travelers and emphasize their purpose in Stony Stream early. In the comics, Vaughan gives his readers enough backstory before revealing the twist at the end of the fifth issue. Hopefully, Paper Girls will slow its breakneck pace down in the next episode, or it may risk losing the thread quickly.
All episodes for Paper Girls are available on Prime Video Friday, July 29th. Check back for more weekly coverage of Paper Girls next week.