Paper Girls has been a stand-out comic book staple since 2015. As a teenager when the comic first came out, I was hooked by how different, exciting, and fresh it was – and I wasn’t the only one, as its diverse cast of characters and their relatability made it stand out to readers everywhere. Paper Girls was quickly embraced by Tumblr fandom, as its specific storylines about queerness, destiny, and friendship hit home for many. This is why it came as no surprise (other than taking a really long time) when Prime Video announced in 2020 that the series based on the comic book had been officially greenlit. However, it wasn’t until May 7th of this year that I saw the official news about the show, with the show’s Twitter page posting about it for the first time. The excitement couldn’t be contained, and Paper Girls Season 1 definitely justifies it.
The show follows four paper girls – Erin (Riley Lai Nelet), Tiffany (Camryn Jones), Mac (Sofia Rosinsky), and KJ (Fina Strazza) – in the fall of 1988, who accidentally get entwined in a time war that pushes them ahead to 2019. There, the four face off against an evil time corporation trying to control the timeline and confront the versions of themselves they eventually become.
Paper Girls feels like many of its predecessors; an easy shorthand is that it feels like Stranger Things meets The Umbrella Academy. But at its core the show is so much more than that. While the show does set up its own mythology to explain how and why everything is happening, science fiction isn’t Paper Girls‘ beating heart. What is, what manages to build deep bonds with the audience and what kept me coming back for more, is the characters: their relationships with each other and with themselves.
Spoilers for Paper Girls Season 1 are below.
The first of Paper Girls‘ many strong themes is the show actively shining a light on the inherent racism of small towns. It does so not only racially, but also in terms of ethnoreligious groups. Just as Erin is discriminated against for being Asian, KJ also falls prey to harassment due to her Jewish heritage. The show doesn’t shy away from discussing how race and religion affects its characters, delving especially into the Asian-American experience through Erin and her family.
Paper Girls Season 1 had plenty of standout moments, but were a gut punch as painful as the scenes between Riley Lai Nelet’s teenaged Erin and Ali Wong’s adult rendering of the same character. The two Erins offer a unique exploration of familiar themes like the dutiful daughter, the family protector, and the one willing to sacrifice her own life to protect others (in what looks like a selfless way but is actually incredibly selfish). It’s through this character dynamic, along with the presentation of these internalized beliefs via Erin’s expectation of what she’ll grow up to be and who she actually becomes, that Paper Girls sets up some of its bigger themes and storytelling mechanisms.
While the show tells a clear and exciting story (it’s got time travel, secret agents, and a time war), the truly interesting stuff isn’t the flashy plot. Rather, it’s the character dynamics – specifically, how these characters deal when they’re confronted with versions of themselves thirty years older than the them they know themselves to be. I’ve always thought there are two different versions of yourself that exist in your mind at all times: the one you are at this very moment and the one that you aspire to be. Paper Girls takes this idea and makes it a reality, forcing the girls to either meet or observe how their future selves turned out, in order to push them into action and change.
Paper Girls Season 1 shows the girls that while their future will never be exactly as they envisioned, nothing is ever black and white – after all, there are silver linings. Their teenage ideas of their future selves are heavily misconstrued from the pressure they put on themselves to get where they want to be. Also bearing some of the blame is the girls’ limited view of who they are and what they like, and how those things will change as they grow older.
As a result, self-discovery quickly becomes a throughline for each character. In Tiffany’s case, she meets a version of herself that’s dropped out of college and is technically a disappointment to herself and her family. Still, Tiffany also gets to see the good: her confidence; her hustle; the sight of herself working her ass off to keep a roof over her head; and the identity crisis that led her down the path of self-discovery, which she’d never have found if all the “bad” things hadn’t happened. In my favorite moment of Paper Girls Season 1, KJ is pleasantly surprised to discover that her university self does not in fact have the life KJ was afraid she’d have. Not only that, she’s in a happy relationship…with a woman, setting up my most anticipated ship of the series: KJ and Mac.
Much of what makes Paper Girls so interesting is how external forces are always the ones pushing the characters into action. It’s the case whether “action” means the girls become accidentally entangled in a time war, find themselves pursued by murdering forces after stealing something of importance, or have to survive out of their own time and find a way back home. It’s the mission that pushes Adult Erin out of her comfort zone and instead forces her to face both the world and the choices that got her to this point. Erin has to learn that the choices that get you where you don’t want to be don’t matter as much as the choices you’re going to make to get yourself out. Ultimately, it’s not about beating yourself up for becoming someone different than who you wanted to be in it, but about how the relationships you cultivate can shape and change your outcome for the better. Anything is possible when you’re with the right people.