Why are we so nostalgic for the 1980s? It seems audiences cannot get enough of the decade, particularly in terms of American popular culture. Everyone is listening to 1980s music, or watching sequels and reboots of 1980s properties. The USA got so into the 1980s craze that they even elected Donald Trump – surely the real world face of “greed is good” hostile economics – to President. The love for all things retro continues in Amazon Prime’s new eight-part science fiction drama Paper Girls. All episodes are now streaming worldwide.
Everyone and their dog can point to Netflix drama Stranger Things (2016) as a key artefact of this new nostalgic age, which I supposed may be true – so long as you ignore things like J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 (2011). Paper Girls is adapted from a comic book by Brian K. Vaughn and Cliff Chiang, which was first published in October 2015. While it may pre-date Stranger Things by almost a year, there is no denying that the global success of that series played a hand in Amazon purchasing up the rights and adapting Vaughn and Chiang’s work for the small screen. It is a great comic, and it’s great to see this new adaptation put a focus on it.
Paper Girls follows four young women in a 1988 American suburb. They each have a paper route, and while riding to make deliveries in the early morning after Halloween they encounter an unexplained event that kicks off a science fiction adventure. This first episode is, understandably, all set-up. It introduces the characters, drives home the nostalgic setting (pop music plays a heavy role in the soundtrack), and presents an inciting incident to drive the remainder of the season forward.
The focus on female protagonists is smart and refreshing, and each young woman is introduced with a combination of recognisable archetype and distinctive small touches. The series definitely trades in pastiche, so it’s no surprise to find the Irish-Catholic tomboy rebel (Marc, played by Sofia Rosinsky), the earnest Asian-American outsider (Erin, Riley Lai Nenet), the bookish private schoolgirl (KJ, Fina Strazza), and the tech-obsessed African-American (Tiff, Camryn Jones). It is a comfortable combination of characters, and already the script – by Stephany Folsom – is pushing them into interesting directions. The episode is technically slick and atmospheric, with solid direction by Georgi Banks-Davies. It does not deliver a complete story, but it does hook you into what comes next.
And why are we so nostalgic for the 1980s? Honestly, I think it is because the 1980s was the first decade of western pop culture that simply never went away. VHS video made film and television something that could be watched and re-watched indefinitely. The development of the CD gave society a medium for music that not only lasted more durably but which was also aggressively marketed to promote people building a collection. While one can point to texts like Paper Girls and mock how egregiously they shave off the difficult bits of history, and present an anodyne reflection of the times, that reflection still inevitably pulls on our goodwill. Kids unsupervised on bikes. Iconic music and fashion. It is all an encouraging place from which to start.