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2022-08-20 00:00:46 By : Ms. Lisa Zhou

Both have dimension-hopping teens riding bikes, saving the world and listening to Sony Walkmans. But only one takes the 1980s seriously

The year’s most charming television series features kids on bikes, dark forces conspiring in Eighties suburbs, and more vintage hits than you could shake The Best Of Kate Bush at.

What it lacks are the words “Stranger Things” in the title. Because the series in question has nothing to do with Netflix dialling things up to Eleven. Instead, you’ll find Paper Girls on Amazon Prime, which has turned the acclaimed 1988-set Brian K Vaughan/Cliff Chiang comic strip of the same name into a moving time-travel adventure.

Stranger Things, we are often told, is fantastical TV with a heart and soul. Yet it’s a lemon-sucking grinch compared to Paper Girls, which combines dimension-hoping with an emotive coming-of-age story.

Crucially, it avoids the Stranger Things pitfall of mistaking nostalgia for a destination in itself: the characters wear Eighties-appropriate clothing and there is a prominent cameo by a rickety Sony Walkman blasting Mother by Danzig. Yet these touches are incidental – rather than shoved in the audience’s face over and over.

“I think a lot of times people treat Eighties stuff as a punchline,” Vaughan told Den of Geek. “They go really broad because it’s very colourful and it’s a lot of fun, but we tried… tried to lean into things being lived in and feeling authentic.”

One reason Paper Girls feels less cartoonishly Eighties than Stranger Things may be that Vaughan remembers the decade first-hand. He was born in 1976 – the same year as the four “Paper Girls” whose stories he tells in the strip. That’s in contrast to Stranger Things twin creators The Duffers, who were born in 1984 – and for whom the decade to which they dedicated their professional lives essentially exists as third-hand recollections.

“It feels like there is a lot of fiction about the Eighties in particular, feels like it has this rose-colored glasses, that it’s more commenting on other shows and movies that we love from the Eighties,” Vaughan told Film School Rejects. “But Cliff and I are old timers, and we grew up in the Eighties, and it was oftentimes a dark and scary place, a bigoted, homophobic world.”

Vaughan actually came up with the idea in 1988. He lived in suburban Cleveland (also the backdrop for Paper Girls), where his parents would receive the Cleveland Plain Dealer every morning.

“It was always delivered by a young man until one day it suddenly wasn’t. There were a bunch of 12-year-old girls in our neighbourhood, delivering everyone’s Plain Dealer,” he told Den of Geek “As a kid, I thought “this is fascinating that there are these parents out there that are letting 12-year-old girls go out at four in the morning to deliver bad news to grown-ups.”

Vaughan and Chiang created Paper Girls to tell the story of these four kids. They are Erin (Riley Lai Nelet), the daughter of a Chinese emigrant, local brain-box Tiffany (Camryn Jones), poor little rich girl KJ (Fina Strazza) and floppy-haired broken home flotsam Mac (Sofia Rosinsky, channelling Edward Furlong in Terminator 2: Judgement Day).

They aren’t friends like the Stranger Things besties (when Mac is introduced to Erin she mistakes her for Japanese and blames her for the economic decline of Cleveland). Instead, they are thrown together on a paper round – and then forced to work together when they become caught in a fight between warring factions of inter-dimensional super-agents. With eerie purple lightning rippling the sky – a dead ringer for the Upside Down on Stranger Things – they accidentally travel forward to 2019, where they are introduced to Erin as a 42-year-old.

Older Erin is played by comedian Ali Wong as a case study in mid-life disappointment. Twelve-year-old Erin dreamed of becoming a politician with a large family. Her older self works a schlubby white-collar job, is frustratingly single and lives in the shadow of her more accomplished sibling. In other words, she’s a real person – rather than the Spielberg archetypes on which Stranger Things riffs.

The time travellers – both good and evil – follow the girls through the portal to 2019 Cleveland, where the fight for the destiny of humankind continues. And yet, though the sci-fi elements of the story are compelling, Paper Girls is just as interested in the philosophical question of whether or not we owe it to our younger selves to make our childhood dreams a reality.

Many people are haunted by the gulf between their current situation in life and ambitions nurtured they were fresh-faced and naive. And Paper Girls asks us to consider whether that is healthy. Or if we should just let it go.

It also orbits questions of mortality and destiny. In 2019 one of the characters learns that something terrible happened to her in the past. Simply by existing in the 21st century, she is cheating fate. Seeing her come to terms with this fact is hugely moving – far more so than the comic book emotions conjured by the Duffer Brothers.

“Paper Girls really opened up a lot of philosophical questions for me because it was like, ‘What if I don’t like who I become? Would I be happy if they were different from what I imagine now?’,” said Camryn Jones, who plays Tiffany, in an interview with Film School Rejects. “He [Vaughan] opened up a lot of those questions for me, but I think being Tiff also helped me realise that as long as I’m happy in the future, I’ll be fine. He opened up the questions, but he also answered them.”

Stranger Things-only-obsessed-with-mortality may seem a tough sell. However, the series wins kudos for the seriousness in which it explores the emotions of its four heroines: children on the brink of adulthood trying to make sense of a confusing world.

That’s in contrast to its Netflix rival. Let’s be honest, nobody in Hawkins acts like an actual teenager. In the real world, is it plausible that Dustin might be hanging around with the much older Steve and Eddie? Would the increasingly crotchety Mike and the dreamy Will still be pals? “I think the great effort of Paper Girls it’s taking 12-year-old girls seriously because we have to,” said Vaughan. “Because they are people who are just as well-rounded and thoughtful as we are, and who are often dealing with things that are heavier than us with rawer emotions. And I think it’s been good. I think it’s been therapeutic.”

Paper Girls has received some positive reviews since debuting on Amazon Prime on July 30. And fans of Vaughan – whose other big hit, Y The Last Man was subjected to a terrible, quickly-cancelled Disney + adaptation – have binged with gusto.

Still, it would be a pity were it not to find a wider audience. Stranger Things shows there is an appetite for a a supernatural story told with heart and with some fun Eighties flourishes. Paper Girls asks us to revisit that formula but with authentic emotions rather than with leg warmers and re-heated Metallica hits. Anyone making that leap will be glad they did.

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