Review: Amazon’s time-traveling ‘Paper Girls’ is a show that takes girls seriously, for once

“Paper Girls” is a series that will instantly draw comparisons to “Stranger Things.”

That’s because the Amazon drama, based on the comic books by Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang, is set in the 1980s, has a science-fiction premise and preteen protagonists on vintage bicycles. But the similarities end there, and it would be reductive and unfair to “Girls” to simply call it the “female ‘Stranger Things.'”

The new series (now streaming, ★★★ out of four), follows four 12-year-old girls who are swept up in a time-traveling war that leads to adventure, timey-wimey (to quote “Doctor Who”) science fiction and, most importantly, deep conversations with their future selves. If you ever imagined what your childhood self would think about the choices you’ve made as an adult, this is the series for you. (Or, perhaps, this is the series that will make you run and hide in fear of being shamed by the child you once were, who predicted a very different adulthood for yourself.) 

Fina Strazza as KJ Brandman, Sofia Rosinsky as Mac Coyle, Riley Lai Nelet as Erin Tieng and Camryn Jones as Tiffany Quilkin in Amazon's "Paper Girls." The young actresses play preteen newspaper delivery girls from 1988 who get caught up in a time travel war.

“Girls” is eerie, heartfelt, complex (and sometimes just complicated). It starts off with a great deal of panache and excitement but falters slightly in the final few episodes of the eight-episode season due to some poor pacing and exposition. Even when you feel like you’re missing a clue to the time-travel world, the series is grounded by the performances of its four young leads, all wonderful talents performing thoughtful scripts. “Girls” not only has tween girls as its main characters – a Hollywood rarity – it gives them agency and personhood they’re often denied.

The series begins in the wee hours of the morning of Nov. 1, 1988, when four newspaper delivery girls run headfirst into a battle of a legendary time-traveling war. The rebellious, scrappy STF Underground wants to use time travel to make things better, while the powerful, entrenched Old Watch seeks to preserve the status quo, which gave them power. This doesn’t mean much to the girls, who are more focused on getting home after they are accidentally spirited away into a time machine that deposits them in 2019. 

More:From ‘Stranger Things’ to ‘Paper Girls,’ why ’80s nostalgia is everywhere on TV this summer

Hunted by the Old Watch and helped by disappointing versions of their adult selves and the STF, KJ (Fina Strazza), Mac (Sofia Rosinsky), Erin (Riley Lai Nelet) and Tiffany (Camryn Jones) make an appealing, potty-mouthed quartet of unwilling adventurers. Natural caretaker Erin is dismayed to find that her 43-year-old self (Ali Wong, bumbling with glee) is estranged from her sister and loafing through life. Ambitious Tiffany expects her adult counterpart to be running the world, while KJ and Mac are confronted with revealing truths about their futures.

Ali Wong as adult Erin and Riley Lai Nelet as young Erin in "Paper Girls."

“Girls” is ambitious, sometimes to a fault. It’s a paranormal adventure and a coming-of-age story, but one in which the adolescents get to see what coming of age looks like in living color when they meet their older selves. Flipping back and forth between what’s essentially two TV shows (part “Who,” part “Now and Then”) is sometimes clunky. Characterization is stronger than the sci-fi world building, in contrast to the usual problems that plague genre shows. Even after watching all eight episodes of the first season, I’m still not entirely clear what the time travel rules are. (And unlike free-wheeling time-travel shows like “Who,” there do seem to be some rules; they just aren’t articulated to the audience). 

Jason Mantzoukas and Adina Porter play soldiers on one side of the time-travel war in Amazon's "Paper Girls."

But even if I don’t understand exactly what the deal is with the Old Watch (represented by delicious villains played by Adina Porter and Jason Mantzoukas) or the effects of time travel, I can forgive “Girls.” There is something refreshing about a series so concerned with examining the inner lives of girls and the women they become, especially considering how few TV shows or films focus on this period of girlhood at all. While on the run and stranded in time, one of the girls gets her first period. So many first menstruation stories from Hollywood are cheesy, inaccurate, or both, but “Girls” plays it for adorable laughs when the girls must decipher the directions for tampons from the future. The series is littered with smart little details like that, from the way the girls dress to how they code-switch when talking to each other and to adults. 

“Girls” is more than just a “Stranger” knockoff, although I can imagine the popularity of that Netflix juggernaut helped get an adaptation of “Girls” off the ground. It takes place in a world where young girls are the heroes of their own stories, which might as well be science fiction. 

More:Hollywood is ignoring tween girls. Here’s why that needs to change.