For the longest period of time, the portrayal of time travel in movies and TV shows had two very rigid extremes. Either they were as playful and nonsensical as “The Terminator” or “Back to the Future” movies, or they would be way too analytical and overly serious like “Primer.” But with “Army of Darkness,” the “Bill and Ted” trilogy, “Groundhog Day,” “Run Lola Run,” “Samurai Jack,” “Minority Report,” “Austin Powers in Goldmember,” “Paycheck,” “Deja Vu,” “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” “About Time,” “Looper,” “Time Lapse,” “Russian Doll,” “Avengers: Endgame” and “Loki,” the sub-genre became diversified. However, none of them have attained the balance between the emotional complexity and absurdity of time travel like “Dark” Seasons 1-3. Prime Video’s “Outer Range” undoubtedly came close, and its fate still rests on its future seasons. That said, the streaming platform’s latest venture into the sub-genre, “Paper Girls,” is certainly not it.
Based on Brian K. Vaughan’s comic book series, “Paper Girls” Season 1 is directed by Mairzee Almas, Georgi Banks-Davies, Destiny Ekaragha, and Karen Gaviola. The episodes are written by Stephan Folsom, Fola Goke-Pariola, K. Perkins, Christopher Cantwell, Christopher C. Rogers, Lisa Albert, K.C. Perry, and Kai Wu. Set in 1988, it follows Erin Tieng (Riley Lai Nelet) as she goes out on her first day as a paper-delivery girl. After messing up her route because she’s new to Stony Stream, she comes across regulars Tiffany Quilkin (Camryn Jones), Mac Coyle (Sofia Rosinsky), and KJ Brandman (Fina Strazza). Soon after that, the four kids are swept away into a time-traveling battle between The Old Watch and the STF, which can, you guessed it, cause the annihilation of humanity. And their only allies are their future selves (the future being 2019), with the first one being adult Erin (Ali Wong).
The biggest problems with “Paper Girls” are that a) it has nothing new to say via the concept of time travel and b) whatever it is saying or doing is being presented in both the dullest and most annoying ways possible. It’s true that, in the time-travel sub-genre, when a version of a character talks to their past or future version (or someone else’s past or future version), the aim is to make them introspect. It’s a conversation with oneself about who they are, where they are going wrong, and what they can do to make amends. And, yes, the show does exactly that, multiple times! But every single sentence of dialogue is so heavy on exposition or one-note in nature that, emotionally speaking, you don’t get anything to latch on to. The fact that all the characters are various shades of irritating doesn’t help either. Not in the complex, humane, and evolutionary way. There’s no evolution. It’s just a straight line of irritation.
The most natural thing that the show does is that it dedicates a massive chunk of an episode to the girls debating over pads vs. tampons. For years, I’ve asked for movies and shows (especially those in the sci-fi genre) to let their characters have these moments where they eat, drink, chat, take a shower, poop, etc., because it seems like a very easy way to ground these grand adventures. That’s why the little plot beat in “Logan,” where Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Professor X (Patrick Stewart) fight about the former assisting the latter into the toilet, is one of my favorite moments in a movie. So, the girls dealing with periods should’ve been a slam-dunk here. But due to the urgency of the narrative and tone of the story being told, it seems jarring at best and a filler at worst. And it’s sad that this is handled so poorly because it’s such an important and character-bonding moment.
Talking about handling things poorly, the craftsmanship on display is abysmal. The only department that can be left off the hook is the VFX department, because we know how this industry treats these artists. Despite that, the visual-effects-heavy shots (especially one which involves face-replacement) they’ve created are, for lack of a better word, decent. The cinematography by Tarin Anderson and Zack Galler is tepid. There’s not a single shot or single camera move that will ignite some sparks in your brain. The editing by Robert Komatsu, Emily Greene, Ivan Victor, and Jennifore Barbot is tedious. The pacing is all over the place and at complete odds with this “end of times” story. The biggest mystery in the show, though, isn’t anything plot-based. It revolves around The Haxan Cloak’s score. These guys gave us the now-iconic score of “Midsommar.” In “Paper Girls,” their work sounds like some random EDM that has been put on repeat. The overall production design is barely passable.
Coming to the acting, whenever young actors are involved, it feels unfair to criticize them too harshly. Largely because they have a long way to go, they have a lot to learn, and they probably have little influence over the directors and the writers. Camryn Jones does most of the heavy-lifting here. Riley and Fina’s work is commendable. Sofia’s whole look and attitude are incredibly reminiscent of John Connor from “Terminator 2: Judgment Day”. Amongst the adults, Adina Porter (as Prioress), Nate Corddry (as Larry), Ali Wong (as Adult Erin), Sekai Abenì (as Adult Tiffany), and Jason Mantzoukas get the most screen time. Technically, Wong and Mantzoukas’s roles are cameos. So, please temper your expectations. Their performances are fine. Porter had every opportunity to be the most memorable of the lot by being the T-1000 or T-800 (continuing with the “Terminator” parallels) of this series. But she doesn’t reach that high, and her whole journey ends up being forgettable.
Despite the negative vibe of the review, it is safe to say that there’s nothing particularly offensive about “Paper Girls.” There’s ambition somewhere beneath the surface. But that’s where it stays throughout the eight episodes. You don’t see it break new ground or attempt to get you emotionally involved in its time-jumping narrative. Everything about this Prime Video series seems like it is striving to be basic because the showrunners feel that doing something radical requires too much effort and runs the danger of breaking the audience’s mind. So, if that’s what you are looking for, please go ahead and watch it. If you want to watch a time-travel movie or series that’s actually engaging, you can check out any of the titles mentioned in the introductory paragraph. In addition to those, you can try out “Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox,” “Predestination,” “Edge of Tomorrow,” “Project Almanac,” “Hot Tub Time Machine,” “Shining Girls,” “The Call,” “Baar Baar Dekho,” “Happy Death Day,” and at the cost of sounding repetitive, “Dark.”