What Went Wrong With ‘Paper Girls’?
Amazon’s streaming comics adaptation already feels like it’s disappearing
Three weeks before its July 29 debut, Amazon put out a trailer for its new streaming series “Paper Girls.” The two-minute trailer revealed major plot points, perhaps too many plot points, for the new eight-episode streaming series.
For those not already familiar with the excellent 30-issue 2015-2019 comic book run by Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang, the trailer gave the gist: in 1988 four Cleveland newspaper delivery girls, all of them around 12-years-old, meet on a spooky Halloween “Hell Night” and suddenly find themselves in a strange time-travel loop that sends them to the year 2019. They meet older versions of themselves, including Ali Wong, and end up in the middle of a time-travel war involving Jason Mantzoukas and white-clad, gun-toting soldiers who look like they work at a futuristic Apple retail store.
When all eight episodes dropped on July 29, fans of the comic (myself included) had reason to be apprehensive. Like a lot of Vaughan’s comic work, it’s an emotionally charged ride with lots of cliffhanger turns, lots of death, and a giant amount of weirdness: dinosaurs, giant robots, prehistoric babies, and nightmare sequences featuring Ronald Reagan.
The TV show, it turns out, keeps almost all of those elements, but also flattens out the urgency of them with stop-and-start pacing problems, and a low-budget look. Paper Girls also has the incredible misfortune of following one of the most-watched streaming seasons of TV ever, Stranger Things 4 and preceding a more highly anticipated comics adaptation, The Sandman.
Reviews for Paper Girls trended good-to-mixed, with only a few outright raves and quite a few “It’s good, but…” writeups. Overall, it averaged a 70 score on Metacritic, ranking it “Generally favorable,” but not an outright critical hit.
Most damningly, though, with more than a week of viewership data at its disposal and more money to burn than it knows what to do with, Amazon hasn’t announced a second season. The last episode of the first season doesn’t resolve the show’s major conflicts or serve as a series finale; there’s a lot of story left to go from the comics.
Paper Girls hasn’t failed, at least not yet. The first season gets a lot right with its diverse casting and some well-tuned emotional payoffs. But as a huge fan of the comics, I can’t help but feel that the TV version badly stumbled out of the gate. Here’s why:
As critic Alan Sepinwall points out in his positive review of the show, adaptations of Brian K. Vaughan’s TV shows seem cursed with bad timing, especially in relation to adjacent franchises. It happened with a Marvel TV takeover that sank Runaways and with a plague-apocalypse-TV glut and real-life pandemic stealing thunder from Y: The Last Man, which only lasted one season on FX.
The biggest timing problem with Paper Girls, though, is that it came out just a week before the critically hailed adaptation of one of the most beloved comics series of all time, The Sandman on Netflix. Critics have given Sandman rapturous reviews, and it seems destined to be a multi-season new franchise for the streamer. The Sandman debut sucked all the air out of the room just as buzz should have been building for Paper Girls.
The other big Netflix problem for Paper Girls: Stranger Things. The back half of Season 4 had some of Netflix’s biggest viewership ever and that’s extremely bad news because the shows share a lot of similar elements. Both shows feature characters from the 1980s, it’s a lot of kids on bikes (at least at the start), and although Paper Girls doesn’t fetishize the ‘80s the way “Stranger Things” does, both series carry a nostalgia factor, with lots of music drops and visual markers for their decades.
It’s unreasonable to expect viewers to know that the writing of the original Paper Girls story predates Stranger Things, so Paper Girls will come across to some as a pale imitation of one of the biggest shows on streaming TV. In fact, many critics with the harshest reviews called Paper Girls a wannabe version of “Stranger Things.”
Worse, Paper Girls can’t possibly compete with Netflix’s juggernaut in terms of its visuals. “Stranger Things” has one of the biggest budgets in all of television, about $30 million per episode. We don’t know what Paper Girls cost, but it has to be a fraction of that, based on what’s on screen.
Time-travel sequences of strange phenomenon in a purple sky look like someone made them on a MacBook Air. They lack the grandeur of maximalist wide shots from Stranger Things or Nope. Sequences featuring giant battling robots or the headquarters of a future government agency look inexcusably cheap by today’s visual effects standards. You would never confuse the effects on Paper Girls with even mid-range Marvel TV efforts on shows like Hawkeye and Ms. Marvel or Amazon’s own comics adaptation of The Boys, which gets bigger and crazier in scale every season.
The creators of Paper Girls seem aware of this; in the first episode, it speeds through sequences that touch on the sci-fi elements of the show as if avoiding dwelling on cheap effects, spending much more time on character dialogue and drab interior shots. Overall, until things start to open up in the third episode, Paper Girls looks dark and murky, lacking the visual punch, color, and dynamic environments of the comic.
It has a Murderer From The Future B-plot that feels lifted directly from “The Terminator,” but with a lot less visual panache. That entire storyline wraps up in ridiculous, unsatisfying fashion on the last episode of the season.
Acting is great across the board, but apart from beloved-by-comedy-nerds Mantzoukas, there’s only one star in the show who’s a household name and a draw: Ali Wong, who only appears in about half of the episodes in the first season.
Paper Girls feels like a show that, for budgetary reasons, had to scale back on its epic scope and sub in endless scenes of characters explaining what’s happening in favor of more storytelling with visuals.
Who’s this for?
What’s most muddled about Paper Girls, though, is that its audience is unclear. The central story of four young girls discovering, to their delight or horror, who they’ll be in the future, makes the show seem like it’s for the YA crowd. But the show features homophobic and racist language from one of its characters, Mac, that an older audience could chalk up to “That’s how some people talked in the ‘80s,” but that younger viewers could see as offensive without knowing that context.
During all the interminable time we spend with the characters when they’re stuck in 1999, Paper Girls seems like a show for nostalgic millennials and Gen-Xers, with tons of unnecessary music cues that don’t necessarily line up with when the show is taking place, and a running joke about Dave Matthews Band T-shirts.
A full year before Paper Girls premiered, the writer who still gets credit bringing the show to TV, Toy Story 4 writer Stephanie Folsom, exited as showrunner. For a show that has five central female characters (six if you count Ali Wong’s Older Erin character), it’s not a great look that everyone in charge as executive producers, from the comics creators to showrunners Christopher C. Rogers and Christopher Cantwell, are middle-aged men.
Rogers and Cantwell previously worked on the excellent Halt and Catch Fire and much of Paper Girls shares a lot of that show’s emotionally complex, slow-burn feel. But while ‘Halt’ was a true-to-life fictionalization of the early days of the PC industry wars set in Texas, Paper Girls is supposed to be a weird, plot-twisty, time-hopping, fast-paced coming-of-age story.
Paper Girls in its current state wants to be punk rock with its super-hip and super-intrusive soundtrack. It’s trying to tell us that adulthood is largely super lame while being 12 is the best, most uncomplicated time of self-discovery you’ll experience with the best friends you’ll ever have.
But the flip-flopping tone and often lugubrious pacing don’t match these aspirations. The excellent young actresses in the show pour their hearts into solid-A performances on a B- show.
The best we can hope for is that Paper Girls gets a second season to course correct and plays out much faster and much stranger. (But not ‘Stranger.’)
Let’s not forget that before it became a modern classic, Halt and Catch Fire had a rough first season, too. Paper Girls hasn’t yet delivered, but it’s totally possible a second season and beyond could fulfill its promise.