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Harlan Coben's Shelter Throws Everything at the Wall, But Little Sticks

The Prime Video thriller unsuccessfully merges its "save the children" conspiracy with B-plots about high school crushes and extracurriculars.
  • Adrian Greensmith, Jaden Michael, and Abby Corrigan in Harlan Coben's Shelter (Photo: Michael Parmelee/Prime Video)
    Adrian Greensmith, Jaden Michael, and Abby Corrigan in Harlan Coben's Shelter (Photo: Michael Parmelee/Prime Video)

    Nothing is as it appears in the world of Harlan Coben's Shelter. When 15-year-old Mickey Bolitar (Jaden Michael) hears music blaring from the town's infamous, creepy mansion, it seems as if the Prime Video adaptation is setting up a run-of-the-mill haunted house thriller. How does the woman living there, the neighborhood pariah known as Bat Lady (Tovah Feldshuh), know this was the same song that played in the moments before Mickey's father (Kristoffer Polaha) died in a car accident? And what does Bat Lady mean when she tells Mickey that his dad "is very much alive," despite the tragedy he witnessed just a few months prior?

    It doesn't take long for the drama to dispel the notion that Bat Lady is some kind of supernatural threat, but the question of what, exactly, is going on in her dilapidated home remains. Over the course of eight episodes, co-showrunners Harlan Coben and Allen MacDonald slowly unravel this mystery as Mickey realizes Kasselton's shadowy Bat Lady is connected to the disappearance of new student Ashley (Samantha Bugliaro). As Mickey and his friends — the nerdy but endearing Spoon (Adrian Greensmith) and sarcastic, secretive loner Ema (Abby Corrigan) — search for the truth, they uncover a sinister conspiracy that spans multiple decades and continents.

    While the far-reaching plot functions as a unifying force for a show that would otherwise spin off in a handful of different directions, Shelter is hardly subtle about the guiding theme that emerges from it: saving children from danger. Mickey met Ashley just a few hours prior to her disappearance, but he repeatedly puts his own safety at risk to find her. (As Spoon and Ema discuss, Mickey is projecting his guilt over not saving his father onto this girl he barely knows.) His parents' jobs remain purposely vague until later episodes, but in a pivotal flashback scene, Polaha's character tells Mickey they do "important work" by "help[ing] people who cannot help themselves." A lengthy lecture from history teacher Mrs. Friedman (Didi Conn) also introduces the (fictional) story of Lizzy Sobek, a child who escaped from Auschwitz and rescued 100 more children from Nazi death camps.

    Through Lizzy Sobek's story, which is expanded upon in a black-and-white flashback in Episode 3, "The Dirt Locker," Shelter draws a direct connection between the Holocaust and contemporary child sex trafficking. The plotline also appears in Coben's Mickey Bolitar book trilogy that serves as the show's source material, but it fails to translate effectively to the screen, in large part due to the underuse of practical effects (particularly prosthetics and makeup) on Feldshuh's character, who looks far younger than her stated age. Perhaps if Shelter had stuck with the idea that there's something otherworldly afoot, the details that emerge about Bat Lady's past would be more believable; as presented, they make little sense in the context of the narrative. That has the unfortunate effect of diminishing the power of the drama's overarching story — and even more concerning, it makes these topics feel far less serious than they really are.

    As the central mystery deepens, Coben and MacDonald introduce countless B-plots. A storyline involving Mickey's mother Kitty (Narci Regina), who is being treated for depression in a mental health facility, offers a break from his jumping-on-the-hood-of-cars investigative work, and it allows Michael to bring some much-needed nuance to the character. But the show doesn't linger on Kitty's situation or the complicated feelings it brings out in Mickey: They're all but forgotten after Episode 2, "Catch Me If U Can," at which point the teenage hero throws himself even further into solving Ashley's disappearance.

    Shelter is more committed to Shira Bolitar's (Constance Zimmer) narrative. With Kitty in treatment, Shira, a successful attorney, steps up to take care of her nephew, but it's not until she reconnects with her high school best friend Hannah Taylor (Missi Pyle) that Zimmer really gets something to chew on. The Emmy-nominated actress has always come alive when her characters are on the offensive (her work on UnREAL stands as a prime example), and she continues that trend here, treating viewers to some deliciously frosty moments with Shira's mother Ellen (Adrienne Barbeau, making the most of her limited screen time as the ultimate nosy Jewish parent) and local police chief Ken Taylor (Lee Aaron Rosen).

    Practically every supporting character gets their own side quest, too. Ema comes out of her shell when she begins a flirtationship with the school's social media-famous makeup artist (Alexa Mareka); head cheerleader Rachel (Sage Linder) is drawn into the investigation, straining her relationship with basketball captain Troy (Brian Altemus); and Mrs. Friedman mourns the disappearance of a young boy decades prior, among other plot threads. While these stories work from a character-development perspective, there's too many of them, and they're too tonally distinct, for Shelter to feel remotely cohesive. The show careens wildly from Holocaust flashbacks to extracurricular drama — in a scene reminiscent of High School Musical, basketball player Buck (Antonio Cipriano) frets over his vocal range — to an extended cheer performance from the "Yasselton Camels" set to Gwen Stefani's "Hollaback Girl." It's like an all-you-can-eat buffet of teenage tropes and mystery drama conventions, complete with drunken hookups and red herrings.

    There are charming moments to be found in Shelter, like the trust that develops between Spoon and Ema, which Corrigan and Greensmith sell with their self-assured performances. The show is also explicitly Jewish in its framing: Beyond the Holocaust storyline, Mickey wears a Chai pendant, and certain religious practices, including marking grave sites with small rocks, are normalized in a way that's rarely seen on TV.

    But these instances of subtlety are fleeting. Right when it seems like Shelter will slow down for a second, it hits viewers with an outrageous twist in Mickey's crusade against an international cabal of criminals or introduces another unrelated B-plot, just to toss it aside a few episodes later. Coben throws everything at the wall, but in the case of his first Prime Video series, little sticks, and viewers are left to sift through the mess.

    Harlan Coben's Shelter premieres Friday, August 18 on Prime Video. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Claire Spellberg Lustig is the Senior Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.

    TOPICS: Harlan Coben's Shelter, Amazon Prime Video, Abby Corrigan, Adrian Greensmith, Didi Conn, Harlan Coben, Jaden Michael, Tovah Feldshuh