Paper Girls: Season 1 (Prime Video) — a review

I’m not big on labels.

I am a writer. And if I’m pressed on the issue, I’ll cop to being a reviewer but never a critic.

Here’s the main difference between a reviewer and a critic, according to me. Critics get paid to finish watching things, even movies and television series that they don’t like, and then they write about them. On the other hand, I—as a reviewer—tend to spend time reviewing only those movies and television shows that I like, at least somewhat. I will seldom watch some production that I hate and then spend more time and headspace on it by writing about it.

Bad reviews are not without entertainment value. I often enjoy reading them. I just don’t enjoy writing them. As someone who’s never created, written or acted in a television show or a movie, I don’t feel it’s my place to brutally criticize the creations of others. I will mention the things that I don’t particularly like when I write my reviews, but these are normally minor issues. If you read my reviews of television/streaming series and movies, you might believe that I’ve never watched anything that I didn’t like. And I wouldn’t blame you, since this is mostly by design.

It’s also not true. There’s quite a bit of content offered out there that I don’t like at all. There’s some that I actually dislike enough that I might even say that I hate them. I don’t write about them, however. With a few exceptions.

I recently wrote about Shel Silverstein and his 1965 children’s book The Giving Tree, and I didn’t hesitate to say I hated the book in the title of the post. I realize that’s a book and not television or movies, but the same principle applies. I also wrote a scathing review of the premiere episode of the 2018 Alicia Silverstone television series American Woman. To date, it’s the only episode of that mercifully cancelled series that I suffered watching.

These reviews are the exceptions, however.

My completely biased and subjective Firewater’s Report Card grading scale translates as follows.

C = average fare: not bad enough to be totally ignored; not good enough to be lavishly praised. However, I don’t usually spend a whole lot of time writing reviews for things that earn this grade. Anything below C-level is a failure, in my opinion.

B = better than average, perhaps even good: maybe flashes of greatness but enough things I dislike about it to prevent it from earning a higher grade.

A = very good to great: this is what I want every series and movie to be, although most aren’t.

The bell curve is alive and well in my grading system. While I’m not using actual stats here, just guesstimating, I’m going to bet that about 10% of what I watch falls in the very good to great category. Another 10% (although this number may be higher), isn’t good enough to rate even a C-grade. This means the bulk of what I watch and review is in the average-to-good range.

The reason I’m beginning my review of Amazon’s Paper Girls like this is because I almost didn’t write a review at all.

After watching the last episode of Season 1 (which will be the only season, since it was cancelled), I was still on the fence about what grade to give it. The season wasn’t a complete shambles, I decided. And there’s enough about it that I liked that I thought I could write a fair and balanced review of the show. On the other hand, there was enough that I didn’t like about the show to keep me from recommending it to others wholeheartedly. Beginning with the fact that it was cancelled.

The story is incomplete and ends on a cliffhanger. With no other episodes coming, it seems almost cruel to subject yourself to the only season of this series. For that reason alone, I wouldn’t blame you for not watching.

But . . .

I didn’t hate it. I also believe there was enough about it that I genuinely liked that it would be a disservice not to write a review. In short, I’m doing this for you. You’re welcome. And then you can decide if it sounds like something worth your time.

I’ve never hesitated to talk about my comic book geek past. In fact, I still read the occasional comic book trade collection (especially those that come “free” with my Amazon Prime membership). At this point I shouldn’t have to point out that comics are a valid form of storytelling, especially as movies and television series based upon comic book properties continue to dominate the current pop culture zeitgeist.

I’m also a sucker for stories that include a group of disparate individuals who work together towards a common cause, especially when the group is formed by children or teenagers. I’m thinking series and movies such as Stranger Things, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, It, The Goonies and Stand By Me. Also, any of the stories in the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew books.

Two episodes into this eight-episode season, I was picking up on vibes from all of these other stories, with hints of The Breakfast Club and Back to the Future as well. With all of the stuff about time travel, I was also reminded of the first season of the Disney + series Loki.

Paper Girls is on Amazon’s Prime Video, not on Disney +. Since this series is also based upon a comic book property that’s not a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe juggernaut, the comparison to Loki is not one which I take lightly. I’m not even sure which temporal regulatory agency existed first on paper, the TVA or the Old Watch. Throw in the Future Council from the Bill & Ted movies as well. Bureaucracy is bureaucracy.

Paper Girls, the comic book series, was published by Image Comics. There were thirty issues between 2015 and 2019. The story was written by Brian K. Vaughan, who I know from Y: The Last Man and Saga, as well as his stint on the television series Under the Dome, based on the novel by Stephen King. Vaughan was also a writer, story editor and producer on the television series Lost during seasons three through five, so he’s no stranger to convoluted time travel plots. (Since he wasn’t around for Season 6 of Lost, Vaughan also doesn’t shoulder any blame for that disappointing finale.)

I’ve never read the comic book, so I can’t compare it to this Amazon series. I tend to be drawn to time travel stories, however. Even though I often find them to be problematic. The time travel story I kept thinking about while watching this series was Back to the Future. Marty McFly traveled back in time thirty years, to a time before he was born and his parents were young. Our young heroes in this series travel about the same amount into the future, to the year 2019 in fact, from a “present” of 1988 that pretty much makes the girls McFly’s contemporaries. During the course of the season, they also travel back to 1999.

I’m not going to get into the details of the plot, except to tell you that it is at least marginally interesting and involves a war that transcends time and at key moments involves a giant robot that summons memories of Japanese television and movies. The big special effects moments aren’t really that big or interesting. You’ve seen better CGI and action sequences.

No, the true value of this series lies in the emotional beats of the story and in its characters. The twelve-year-old girls who are transported to the future are familiar. Archetypal even.

Tough badgirl Mac (Sofia Rosinsky), black smartgirl Tiffany (Camryn Jones), Jewish richgirl KJ (Fina Strazza), and Asian newgirl Erin (Riley Lai Nelet) are drawn together during Erin’s first day on her newspaper route (hence, Paper Girls). We get to know the characters better as they get to know each other at the same time. The characters are more than cardboard cutouts, it turns out. In 2019, Mac discovers that she “died” from cancer when she was sixteen, which set her brother on the path to becoming a doctor. Tiffany disappoints herself when she discovers her older 1999 self is an MIT dropout working as a lighting director for raves. Erin’s 2019 self (admirably played by Ali Wong) is crippled by self-doubt and anxiety. KJ, it seems, is a gay woman attending film school. All of this character work is more interesting than giant robots and fuchsia colored time storms.

Other adult characters are introduced as well, but these are all secondary and, to me, less interesting than the preteens.

Unfortunately, since the series was cancelled, there is no real payoff for all of this character work. Still, it remains interesting to watch. If you’re interested in storytelling in any medium, you’ll find some value in watching this as well.

Firewater’s What-Do-You-Want-With-the-Future? Report Card: C+

If Amazon had renewed this series, I may have been more inclined to give it a grade of B. But I think this is a fair grade for a series that’s intriguing but flawed. I don’t believe that watching it was a waste of my time.


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