As Paper Girls opens in 2019, a 40-ish woman we'll eventually learn is named Erin (Ali Wong) is troubled by loud noises in the night, the sound of something unexpected, and probably unwanted, crashing into her home in the Cleveland suburbs. After the credits roll we see the scene play out again, sort of. Erin wakes up again in the same bedroom, only this time she's 12 (and played by Riley Lai Nelet). And the noise waking her up is annoying but expected, the sound of an alarm waking her up for her first day on the job delivering newspapers. It's November 1st, 1988, a date that, as on-screen text informs us, doubles as "the end of the world as we know it."
So how, if the world ends, will Erin still be around to be scared decades later? It turns out that "as we know it" is the key phrase in that caption. Adapted from a comic book series written by Brian K. Vaughan (Saga, Y: The Last Man) and drawn by Cliff Chiang, Paper Girls is at once a twisty, tale of science fiction and chronological warfare in which rival time-traveling factions vie for control of the future by invading the past and a coming-of-age story about Erin and three fellow paper girls, characters who happen to be leaping through the decades in an attempt to return home (and maybe save the world in the process) as they stare down the inevitability of adolescence, adulthood, and change. The series works as both, but it's better as the latter, finding a groove once it slows down and focuses on the characters and the unique possibilities presented by a time travel story focusing on tween girls.
It takes a few episodes to get there, in part because it has a lot to set up to get through and a bunch of characters to juggle (sometimes multiple versions of the same character). Joining Erin are Tiffany (Camryn Jones), a science whiz and KJ (Fina Strazza), a girl whose family's wealth causes others to eye her with suspicion. That's especially true of the fourth member of their quartet, Mac (Sofia Rosinsky), a kid from the wrong side of the tracks who treats every interaction as a battle to be won. To be fair, Mac and the others will soon face their share of battles. By the end of the first episode they've been confronted by mysterious foes and thrust years into the future, ending up where the episode began: in the home now owned by Erin as an adult.
The frenetic action and Back to the Future Part II twists work reasonably well in the series' early moments, but it's in exploring the relationship that develops between the two Erins that the show finds itself. 1988 Erin is upbeat and ambitious and has a vision of what she wants from her life. 2019 Erin doesn't line up with what she had in mind. As the show progresses, the other girls will have similar moments that put them face-to-face with their futures, sometimes by interacting with the women they'll become, sometimes through other discoveries. By midway through this eight-episode first season — developed by Stephany Folsom (Toy Story 4) who left at some point during the production; its executive production team includes Halt and Catch Fire co-creators Christoper Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers — the pace lets up and the characters come into focus, making it easier to care about the ways their worries about the future extend past a desire to get back to the time they know.
In one of the series' best stretches, KJ stumbles into an awakening, learning things about herself and her passions — personal and professional — that she never knew before, or maybe suspected but didn't understand. In another episode, Erin gets her first period, a momentous development compounded by being unstuck in time and chased by bad guys (and good guys, though it's not always clear who's who). Paper Girls' best moments use the fantastic premise to enhance a story filled with familiar moments of adolescent drama. Its characters are everyday teens grappling with all the drama inherent to that and occasionally dealing with giant robots and pterodactyls.
Ending on a cliffhanger that sets up future installments, this first season doesn't always strike the perfect balance between personal drama and sci-fi action (and who exactly the players from the future are and what they want still remains a bit obscure by season's end). But it's a promising start helped by a cast whose strengths extend beyond its four appealing leads. (In addition to Wong, the supporting cast includes Nate Corddry and promising newcomer Sekai Abenì.) The mind-bending time contortions make it grabby. The characters' inner lives give it heart. But it's the combination of the two — and the willingness to pause to focus on the latter — that makes Paper Girls stand out.
Premieres: Friday, July 29 on Amazon Prime Video, all 8 episodes
Who's in it: Fina Strazza, Sofia Rosinsky, Camryn Jones, Riley Lai Nelet, Ali Wong, Nate Corddry
Who's behind it: Christopher Cantwell, Christopher C. Rogers, Stephany Folsom, Brian K. Vaughn, Cliff Chiang
For fans of: Stranger Things, retro sci-fi
How many episodes we watched: 8 out of 8