Paper Girls, originally created by Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang, arrived on Amazon Prime last month courtesy of director Stephany Folsom. The story of four twelve-year-old girls has been faithful to the comics, and those girls are the heart of the show, which comes as no surprise when it follows the formula of Stand By Me.
It’s a compelling story, with characters that are memorable for the actions they take, their emotional vulnerability, their reliability, and their willingness to always do good. There’s nothing more satisfying than intelligent characters in a sci-fi drama mystery, especially ones as nuanced, heroic, or intimidating as these.
Jason Mantzoukas plays the quirky true antagonist of the show, debuting at the end of episode four ‘It Was Never About The Corn’. Mantzouka plays the role similar to his hilarious Brooklyn Nine-Nine character, Adrian Pimento. However, he has less than half the season to establish himself as the true threat, and barely any scenes focus on him.
This is not to the show’s detriment. In the first season, it’s more important to shape the agency of its protagonists. Regardless, he’s less impactful at this point of the show, and it’s hard to like him when he’s barely made himself known. Mysterious, playfully evil characters can be charming, but the Grand Father is hardly around to do even that.
The well-meaning fighter of the STF Underground is played by Nate Corddry. Although he’s closer to a side character, he does manage to appear in six of eight episodes.
Larry’s a difficult case, as his near-past version is much kinder than the future paranoid self that betrayed the girls. He’s commendable for trying to help them out of his guilt, but he’s mostly a tool to deliver information and doesn’t have much agency, only part of the rebellious STF because of a fleeting mention of his father that is never seen on-screen. He’s hard to like when his strongest impression is that of a pitiful man who uselessly sacrifices himself twice, but at least he tries.
Played by Riley Lai Nelet, Erin is arguably the main protagonist of the show, even if the show gradually shares her focus with the other three paper girls.
As a tween and a witness to extraordinary circumstances, Erin’s emotions are understandable. However, as the show continues, she’s one of the less productive, more frustrating characters. She’s unfair to constantly deride her older self, who respectably took care of her mother (Jane Hu) and became a paralegal, a career that’s no easy feat. The show’s focus diverts to other characters in the second half and is better spent there, as it’s hard to like Erin in many of her scenes when she spends most of them annoyed at everyone in her presence. She’s a child and she only has room to grow, but she’s the least enjoyable out of the main four.
The first antagonist of the show, Adina Porter plays the part of the Prioresss brilliantly, always right behind the girls in her resolve as part of the Old See. Her backstory came quick and abruptly in the last episode, but it ties neatly to KJ’s (Fina Strazza) guilt of killing the Prioress’s brother. She didn’t get a lot of development before her heroic end, but she was entertaining to watch throughout.
Her commanding presence and the effective way she manipulates people give her a stronger presence than the Grand Father, bringing more tension and enjoyment to the show than he could. She could have become one of the most likable, but sometimes a character just needs more scenes.
A surprisingly delightful addition to the cast. Dylan (Cliff Chamberlain) likely won’t make much of an appearance in the rest of the show but played a great older brother in Mac’s (Sofia Rosinsky) future.
Dylan doesn’t have flaws to overcome in this story and as such it’s difficult to place him higher, but he’s the perfect mentor to help Mac reach an introspective part of her development. Dylan is patient, supportive, and critical of Mac’s language and anti-Semitism, showing his strength of character as a person and a father. Even if Mac hasn’t completely conquered her flaws when they part, he’s endearing on his own for trying to give Mac a better life.
The nervous hero that guided the start of the adventure, is played by Ali Wong, an actor of great pedigree. After an understandable nervous breakdown from seeing her past self, Erin’s older counterpart almost unrelentingly aids her younger self and their friends despite a lack of gratitude.
Wong puts on a fantastic performance as the self-doubting older Erin, and it’s hard not to cheer her on as she mutters encouragement at herself, and grows stronger in confidence. She gets points for somehow learning to operate a mech in under six hours, but aside from that, her relatable and realistic anxiety about her life makes her so easy to like and want the best for.
Tiffany’s older incarnation (Sekai Abeni) is as if someone turned Undone’s Jacob Winograd into a down-to-earth, self-driven college dropout who is a great empathizer and communicator with children.
Due to her knowledge, Quilkin is quick to understand and believe the girls, and she has an adorable dynamic impressing her younger self. While young Erin fights any attempt to find solutions, Tiffany is constantly working with her younger self to seek a way forward and has a determination to help. The emotional damage that led to her dropping out is sure to hit home with some older audiences, but she was already likable from the moment she showed her open, smart personality.
Young KJ makes a strong impression from the very start. Rescued from a group of bullies and bullied again by Mac for her rich Jewish family, she is immediately sympathizable. While her anger seems inexplicable at first, everything makes sense once it’s revealed that she’s coming to terms with being a lesbian in a family pushing her into straight relationships. She then becomes a supporting rock for Mac, who like her, is dealing with the idea that she can’t control her destiny.
Her frustrating decision to stay behind to talk to the Prioress (while understandable) was largely responsible for the series cliffhanger, but otherwise, KJ was a wonderful member of the cast with a great LGBTQ+ character arc. It’s always a joy to see characters discover their identity and overcome the odds to be who they are.
Though she begins abrasive and bigoted due to the inherited views from her abusive family, Mac’s redemption arc makes her one of the most nuanced of the cast. Being rowdy, anti-Semitic, and using able-ist language, Mac had a lot to make up for. As she slowly overcomes and apologizes for the bigoted attitudes she inherited from her idolized brother, it’s hard not to root for her.
Her arc is slow and realistic, dealing with existential and nihilistic questions of how anything matters when she’s destined to have brain cancer in four years. However, she brings down her emotional walls to be friends with the group and becomes one of the most powerful, likable members of the cast, even standing up to the Grand Father with only KJ at her side.
Of all the characters in this sci-fi mystery, young Tiffany (Camryn Jones) is the smartest, one of the strongest-willed, and the one most able to move the story forward. Tiffany surprises with her smarts at every turn. While she isn’t the emotional core of the show or doesn’t have as strong a connection as Mac and KJ, she comes up with the best ideas for the group and is unrelenting in her efforts to survive and get home.
The tender moment in discovering her adoption is deeply saddening, and yet through that, she manages to lecture her older self and grow stronger. She’s the genius center of the group that’s vital to the story, and it’s hard not to like her when she works the hardest to keep them moving forward.
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