It’s hard enough being a 12-year-old girl — you’re getting confusingly close to that “not a girl, not yet a woman” stage in life — but add being thrown into the middle of a centuries-old war over time itself on top of that and you’ve really got yourself a stressful situation. To the best of my knowledge, YM, one of the best teen girl magazines to ever do it, never published a “10 Things To Do If You Inadvertently Time Travel and People in Sleek Outerwear are Trying to Kill You” article but maybe they should have. That’s on you, YM! Although, if there’s one thing about time travel that this first episode of Paper Girls makes abundantly clear, it’s that there is really no preparing for being dropped 30 years into the future and coming face-to-face with your older self. That’s more of a go with the flow, fake it till you make it type of deal.
Welcome to Paper Girls! If you’re watching the series because you’re a fan of Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang’s comic-book series, you are not alone! Do you think the TV version will let its freak flag fly as much as the comic? One can only hope! If you’re watching because you heard Paper Girls is sort of like Stranger Things meets a PG-13 version of The Baby-Sitters Club where all the baby-sitters say “fuck” and beat people with field hockey sticks (only when they deserve it, okay?) with insane time travel added in, well, I don’t think you will be disappointed. Also, you should definitely read the comic, it is a ride. And if you’re here because you assumed this series is about the evolution of the newspaper in America or some gender-flipped version of Newsies, um, buckle up. It is definitely neither of those things.
But newspapers are what bring our titular quartet of paper girls together. Meet Erin, Mac, Tiff, and KJ. When we first find the girls on November 1, 1988, Erin is kicking off her first day as a paper girl in Stony Stream, Ohio. She’s quiet but determined, and clearly carries a lot of anxiety, mostly about feeling responsible for her mom, a Chinese immigrant who doesn’t speak much English and has been ostracized from the community. She dreams of a great political career. Mac, the first girl to get a paperboy route from The Cleveland Preserver, comes from the other side of town, and when we first meet her at 4:30 a.m., she’s stealing a pack of cigarettes off her passed out step-mother and lying to her brother about taking his walkman. Her home life seems pretty shitty and I’m no psychologist, but that’s probably why she’s full of rage and parrots some of the racist and anti-semitic stuff her dad says. Tiff is really into science and gadgets, specifically her TRC-218 walkies. She seems to be the most pragmatic of the group, and while everyone takes their paper route pretty seriously, she really takes it seriously. Rounding out the crew is KJ. Consider her the Sporty Spice (she is never without her field hockey stick). Her family is wealthy and well-known in town and she’s currently in a battle with her mom because she would rather die than wear the pink frilly dress her mother has picked out for her bat mitzvah. If only any of them realized that all of the things they’re worrying about right now won’t be a top priority in, say, an hour, thanks to that little ol’ interdimensional time war they are biking straight into.
In a telling moment, it’s actually Mac who gathers Erin and Tiff as they’re all out on their routes, avoiding the dipshits still causing trouble the day after Halloween (Erin chose Hell Day as her first day on the job, the poor thing). Mac has them help her go after Wally Becker and his friends, who are currently harassing another paper girl (this turns out to be KJ). According to Mac, Wally Becker is a real “limp dick.” The disdain these girls already have for teenagers gives me hope for them all.
Thanks to some fireworks Mac has handy, it doesn’t take long for the girls to get KJ and themselves as far away from Wally as possible. The four of them regroup and agree (some of them begrudgingly) that it might be best if they stick together for the rest of this Hell Day morning in order to get their routes done in one piece. They don’t particularly know each other well, and Mac certainly isn’t the easiest to get along with, but they all recognize that they’re stronger together. A useful lesson for the future, one might assume!
They haven’t even splintered off into their two groups as planned before Erin gets jumped by two teenagers in black cloaks. The teens steal the walkie from her and take off, but Erin’s been messed with too many times this morning and she votes that they go after these idiots. And so, Mac grabs the other walkie and makes their intentions known to whoever stole their stuff: “Hey ass-clowns, if you can hear this, get ready, cause we’re coming to get our shit back.” They got papers to deliver, man!
Now, here is the part where I will whole-heartedly admit that if you’re just reading this recap and have not watched the show yet, this all sounds like a not very funny SNL sketch — hardass 12-year-olds treating their paper route like it has life or death stakes? — but there are several things that stop the series from feeling like a joke. The most obvious is the performances of our four main paper girls — their chemistry is easy and immediate. These characters could easily be one note — the shy one, the mean one, the smart one, the jock — but even halfway through the pilot, they are already revealing other layers and hinting at some deeper development. The pilot is so efficient in that it drops you right into this world and very quickly you get a picture of who these girls are and how they might function as a unit. And it needs to be efficient, right? Because we haven’t even gotten to the wild shit yet.
Things get weird, fast. The girls confront the cloaked guys in the basement of some new construction and realize they are not who they thought they were — their faces are scarred and they’re speaking a language none of them recognize. They don’t really have time to process any of that because outside, the sky has turned pink, there’s a giant storm cloud that cannot mean anything good, and perhaps most off-putting: Everyone else in town seems to have disappeared.
They race to Mac’s now empty house to wait it out. Tiff is convinced it must be the Russians. Remember kids, the ‘80s seem fun and all, but they were also full of paranoia about a nuclear apocalypse, so, like, it kind of evens out. The girls start to get even more freaked out when the only sign of life is someone looking through windows with flashlights. Mac grabs her dad’s gun and in the ensuing chaos, accidentally shoots Erin in the stomach. Hell Day, indeed!
The rest of the episode moves at breakneck speed. They’re in a car and Tiff, who has driven once in a parking lot, is trying to get them to a hospital. KJ tries to distract Erin by having her sing the Growing Pains theme song (a true banger). It’s all chaos and yelling until suddenly Tiff stops short because people in sleek white coats are shooting at the guys in the black cloaks from before. Eventually, those two guys pull the girls out of the car. Erin has a trippy dream about Ronald Reagan (the ’80s, baby!) and when she comes to, the guys in cloaks are leading them all off of some sort of small ship. They’re in the Stony Stream woods, but the guys, who speak with some sort of translator over their vocal cords, try to explain that they’ve “traveled.” The people in white coats end up killing both of them, but not before one of them hands Tiff a small, square tech device. His translator is broken, but we can make out the word “Underground.” Remember that, it’s important!
One of the white coats closes in on the four girls and Tiff considers trading that piece of tech — which the man seems VERY interested in — in exchange for their lives. Before she can cut a deal, though, KJ slams her field hockey stick into the white coats’ head. Out of all of them, it’s KJ who looks the most surprised; She had no idea that sort of anger was inside of her. When asked if anyone else is hurt, KJ’s response is “I don’t know what I am.” The truest response a 12-year-old girl can give! Surely, something to unpack when they get a quick sec.
For now, Erin’s house is closest so Erin, whose gunshot wound has been miraculously healed by some robotic bugs the guys in cloaks put all over her stomach, leads the way. When they arrive, things seem a little off. There’s someone else in the house and she threatens to call the cops, but it’s not Erin’s mother. She doesn’t know this woman, who seems very confused to find four pre-teens in her kitchen. And then thanks to some photos on the fridge, it begins to dawn on all of them that they do in fact know this woman. It’s Erin. And she’s 43 years old. So, yeah, I think it’s safe to say that they will not be finishing their paper routes this morning.
• Very interested in getting a closer look at Adina Porter’s character: She’s seemingly one of the leaders of the group in white coats and thus far we’ve only seen her make sure the guys in the black cloaks are dead dead.
• Ali Wong plays the older, clearly depressed version of Erin and in the few minutes we get with her she’s already become one of my favorite things about the show.
• The girls chat about the last Halloween when they actually dressed up and their costumes feel fitting for each: Tiff was an astronaut, KJ was Wayne Gretzky, Erin has never really been trick-or-treating, and Mac was a Care Bear. “I was fucking four,” she says, trying to keep her reputation in tact.
• Anyone else start tearing up when Erin said that her mom gives out full-size candy bars at Halloween because she’s trying to get the neighbors to like her? Erin needs like seven hugs.
• Two great needle drops already: Marie Davidson’s “Work It” and what is becoming a standard for sci-fi shows, “Hazy Shade of Winter,” here by The Bangles. (See also: Stranger Things and The Umbrella Academy.)