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‘Paper Girls’ wants to be another ‘Stranger Things’ but doesn’t quite deliver

<i>Courtesy of Prime Video</i><br/>(From left) Camryn Jones
Courtesy of Prime Video
Courtesy of Prime Video
(From left) Camryn Jones

Review by Brian Lowry, CNN

The latest graphic novel from Brian K. Vaughan to make the leap to the screen, “Paper Girls” possesses a “Stranger Things”-wannabe vibe, blending coming-of-age elements, time travel, nostalgia and science fiction. The result makes for a semi-watchable Amazon series that feels a little too convoluted to satisfactorily deliver.

Delivery, in this case, is what the 12-year-old quartet at the center of the show do with their newspaper route, way back in 1988, when print was still ascendant. An encounter with time-travelers caught up in a poorly explained war propels the group to the present, where one of them, Erin (Riley Lai Nelet), meets her grown-up self (Ali Wong), who turns out to be a major disappointment to her given the girl’s lofty ambitions.

Erin isn’t the only member of the gang destined to learn hard truths about what lies in store for her, as she’s joined by Mac (Sofia Rosinsky), Tiffany (Camryn Jones) and KJ (Fina Strazza), who are all dealing with different adolescent challenges and the strange, sometimes inexplicable feelings that go with them.

At the same time, the girls are seeking help to find their way back to the ’80s, which is where “Paper Girls” grows increasingly confusing, as they get drawn further into a conflict they don’t entirely understand — a sentiment, frankly, that an audience unfamiliar with the comics is likely to share.

It’s a talented young cast, and the dizzying time-travel twist asks what it would be like to meet your past (or future) self. Beyond the adult Erin, nicely played by Wong in a more dramatic turn, their adult allies include Larry (Nate Corddry), while being pursued by a ruthless representative of the rival faction (Adina Porter).

The real problem is a common one among time-travel scenarios: not only figuring out what the rules are, but what impact tampering with the timeline might have on those involved. For a case study in where that can go astray, HBO’s recent “The Time Traveler’s Wife” serves as a handy study guide.

Those hurdles are compounded by the age of the central characters, who, resourceful as they might be, seem over their heads as they lurch from one crisis to the next. Like the last Vaughn series brought to TV, “Y: The Last Man,” parts of these ideas probably looked better on paper than they do in this format.

Misgivings aside, this Amazon series arrives with sizable ambitions, including a first-season ending that makes clear this isn’t intended to be the end of the story.

As for whether that serialized approach will catch on, stranger things have happened (and indeed did). But thus far, “Paper Girls” doesn’t prove distinctive enough to feel worthy of renewing its subscription.

“Paper Girls” premieres July 29 on Amazon.

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