New York — Even the title is enigmatic. Stranger Things could mean so many things: The recent extreme weather; Washington politics; fad recipes for kale.
Nearly everyone knows about Stranger Things. But who can explain what this enigmatic sci-fi-horror series is really about?
The second season of Stranger Things — all nine episodes worth — will be released by Netflix on Friday, with much anticipation.
And the many ingredients that made the series an instant sensation with its debut in July 2016 remain in evidence: Icky monsters and an alternate reality, technology gone wild amid government mischief, childhood innocence and teenage passions, the state of adulthood with its pressures and pitfalls, and all of it viewed through the soft-focus rear-view mirror of nostalgia (the series takes place in a small Indiana town in the 1980s). It's a masterful creation by the somewhat enigmatically dubbed Duffer Brothers.
Stranger Things has been rightly saluted for its youthful sensibility. It "gets" kids like few other series do. And it has gotten extraordinary young actors to play them, both among the preteens, such as lisping Dustin (played by Gaten Matarazzo) and psychokinetically enabled Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), as well as among the teens, who include high school lovebirds Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and Steve (Joe Keery).
As for the adults, Winona Ryder is impressive as single mother Joyce whose 12-year-old son, Will (Noah Schnapp), vanished in the series premiere after encountering a monster from the Upside Down other world.
It fell to Jim Hopper, chief of the Hawkins Police Department, to lead the official search for Will — a particularly fraught mission for Hopper after having lost his own daughter to cancer some years earlier, a trauma that plunged him into alcoholic despair.
As played by David Harbour, Hopper in the first season was a testy, emotionally absent father-figure for the whole community who nonetheless rose to the occasion — and, much to viewers' surprise, became a fan favourite.
"Something we tend to forget in storytelling is that a character doesn't have to be likable right from the get-go," says Harbour. "You don't have to like him, you don't have to feel affection, but you do have to pay attention to him. Hopper gets your attention, even without automatically getting your affection.
"That makes for such a deeper relationship when you have mixed feelings about him, rather than those relationships you have with simply heroic characters where you're behind them the whole way."
Harbour's credits include the films Quantum of Solace, Revolutionary Road, State of Play and the forthcoming remake of Hellboy. He says from the first script for Stranger Things he detected in Hopper the bygone flawed heroes from films ranging from The French Connection and The Conversation to the Indiana Jones films and Jaws, with its beleaguered police chief played by Roy Scheider.
"He's a cop who works at the beach, but he's afraid of the water," says Harbour, "so you KNOW that he's gonna have to go into that water. In the same way, Hopper is a cop who can't stand children after losing his daughter, so you know he's gonna have to go save the kids — and it's gonna be the toughest thing he ever did."
Harbour thinks his character's gruff edge serves the show not only on-camera but behind the scenes in connecting with his young cast mates.
"I maintain a little bit of that distance with these kids because I care about them so much," he says. "I feel their talent and intelligence, and I'm very protective of them: 'All right, I know everybody thinks you're great, but let's settle down and get to work.' And in return, they have a spontaneity and joy that's infectious."
However much he savoured the dramatic possibilities for Hopper when he signed up, Harbour could have had no inkling of the cultural impact Stranger Things would have ("I was completely shocked," he says). He remains at a loss even now to explain what for him, too, remains somewhat of an enigma.
"It's hard to put into words what specifically this show is," he says, "or to characterise what's so good about it. At the end of the day, I think the Duffers are just really good storytellers."
The second season begins, appropriately enough, just before Halloween, with a patch of poisoned pumpkins, a new champion at the video arcade (a girl!), and Will afflicted by flashbacks from his Upside Down abduction. Devo's Whip It is among the vintage songs heard on the soundtrack, and the boys' Halloween costumes are inspired by that new film hit Ghostbusters.
"Our show is earnest where a lot of stuff nowadays is kind of clever and jaded," says Harbour, still trying to zero in on its appeal. "There's not a fear to go to those places that could be sentimental but instead, are just richly emotional. This is apparently a nostalgia piece, like a love letter to the '80s. But even though we're using the alphabet of nostalgia, the sentences we make are original."