Within the opening horrific minutes of Harlan Coben’s Shelter, young protagonist Mickey (Jaden Michael) sees the death of his father Brad (Kristoffer Polaha) after a truck slams into them. The accident appears to be just that: an accident.
However, when Mickey is sent to live with his aunt Shira (Constance Zimmer) in the town where she and his father grew up, he quickly discovers that this is not the case and that the wreck is linked to something much bigger and darker than Mickey could have imagined — not only that, but he may be the only one who can untangle the web and discover the truth. That is, he and his pals Spoon (Adrian Greensmith) and Ema (Abby Corrigan).
The horrific vehicle accident is one of several tropes used in Harlan Coben’s Shelter. Sometimes it does it effectively, inverting the clichés that plague juvenile mysteries. At times, it slips into the same familiar pitfalls that have befallen many who have come before it in the genre, making it feel like just another boring, run-of-the-mill adaptation for which no one was clamouring.
While the characters in Shelter are far from ideal, they are the greatest part of the film. On the surface, they appear to be stock characters — Mickey is the new kid from a basketball family, Spoon is his nerdy guide who serves as comic relief, and Ema is the strange outcast who reluctantly finds herself drawn into their friendship — and, some extent, they play into their stereotypes.
However, each of the characters grows in depth with time, resulting in some fascinating (though often predictable) dynamics and poignant moments. Cheerleader Rachel (Sage Linder), for example, isn’t a cruel girl and Ema’s family isn’t what you’d anticipate based on her gothic makeup and tattoos.
It’s difficult to capture how Generation Z genuinely speaks and acts, and although Harlan Coben’s Shelter is never terribly offensive in its portrayal of its youthful cast, it’s also never very authentic. It’s always felt a little strange – as if the language was penned by an adult anticipating what an adolescent today would say. Nonetheless, the primary cast has great, strong, and essential chemistry with one another, and there are moments when their performances pierce through and offer us true humour and heart.
The show also gets romance — or lack thereof — properly. It would be tempting to promote a conventional romance or perhaps a love triangle between Ema and Spoon or Mickey, but the programme takes a different route and wisely focuses on the core group’s camaraderie. Instead, Ema develops feelings for Whitney (Alexa Mareka), a social media personality who admires Ema’s artistic talent. It’s a beautiful and refreshing portrayal since the fact that it’s a sapphic relationship is never an issue.
Meanwhile, integrating adults into teen dramas might be difficult. They’re frequently either cartoonishly dominating or utterly missing, and they seldom have their own tale that doesn’t feel forced in or like an afterthought. Harlan Coben’s Shelter treats its adults with exceptional care and expertise. Zimmer is a criminally underappreciated actress who has carved out a name for herself as a feisty career woman in programmes like UnREAL, Entourage, and House of Cards, and her role here plays into those qualities while also allowing her to stretch a different set of muscles.
Shira is tough and not a natural nurturer (as her mother readily admits), but her affection for Mickey is palpable. She’s rough around the edges in an appealing, down-to-earth manner, and it’s fun to see her play off the equally playful Missi Pyle as more of their past is exposed.
While the people in Harlan Coben’s Shelter are the greatest part, the main problem is the weird tone. The visual aesthetic is mediocre, and the generic music doesn’t help things – the whole thing feels cheap and tacky at points. The bullies in the series are the popular jocks (no surprise there), and their speech is frequently over-the-top and antiquated, pulled directly from an 80s movie.
The enigmatic and terrifying Bat Lady (Tovah Feldshuh) and her beautiful, eerie mansion are straight out of a storybook. While all of these themes work in a supernatural period piece like Stranger Things, they feel out of place here and are a strange and jarring contrast to the more current concerns that surface, such as purchasing social media followers.
Harlan Coben’s Shelter also attempts to address more serious issues, such as human trafficking, child abuse, and the Holocaust, but it feels sanitised in a way that doesn’t do any of them credit. It’s a difficult line to walk, given that the programme’s primary audience is young adolescents because there’s only so much you can say and show while remaining age-appropriate. However, when the characters are trying to bust a sex slavery ring while also worrying about a basketball game in the same episode, it feels odd and disconnected.
That isn’t to argue that programmes that centre on teen coming-of-age tales can’t blend smaller-scale personal difficulties and broader stakes together; nevertheless, the series that succeed in doing so know exactly what they want to be, whereas Harlan Coben’s Shelter can’t seem to decide. Yellowjackets, a pitch-black comedy and real adult horror falls on the other end of the spectrum, veering into the campy and strange.
Shelter by Harlan Coben, on the other hand, falls somewhere in the centre. The surprising relationship and playful humour between the three primary misfits would fit beautifully in a CW or Freeform lineup, but the show takes itself far too seriously to fully embrace that fun, absurd atmosphere.
Harlan Coben’s Shelter is allowed greater leeway to push the boundaries since it’s on Prime Video, but it never does so meaningfully. The only thing that truly distinguishes it is that the characters use a few curse words. Its cookie-cutter portrayals of difficult subjects keep it from being too unpleasant or provocative. It plays it safe, and it suffers as a result, making it forgettable and unimaginative.
Harlan Coben’s Shelter can be a tad confusing in terms of plot. There are so many story strands running concurrently from all perspectives that it might be difficult to keep them all straight. Regardless of how clumsily they’re introduced and explored, the plots are compelling enough to capture your attention and make you eager about how they’ll play out.
You might not be jumping over yourself to find the remote and press “next episode,” but if you don’t have anything better to do, you’ll probably shrug and let the app put the next one on. The story twists and cliffhangers are ingenious and make logic, and very few things feel tossed in for effect. By the conclusion of the season, all of the strands have come together to form a pleasing tapestry, leaving you wondering what the next chapter will be like.
I’m not optimistic about the next episode, since Harlan Coben’s Shelter seems set to drift into obscurity and the streaming ether with little lasting influence. Finally, there are some interesting moments, but it never quite reaches anything more elevated or distinctive. There’s a more adventurous, exciting performance somewhere in here, but it’s hidden behind plainer, more average entertainment.