Friday, August 18, 2023

Harlan Coben’s Shelter, on Prime

Harlan Coben's Mickey Bolitar novels were conceived as a YA spin-off to his popular Myron Bolitar adult novels, but you wouldn’t know it from the streaming adaptation. The bestselling Myron is Mickey’s uncle in the books, but he is nowhere to be found in the series. Now the moody teen has a single aunt, perhaps to avoid conflicts with Coben’s Netflix deal for his grown=up titles. Regardless, Mickey still has a troubled mother struggling with mental health issues and his father is still dead, or is he? That will be one of the mysterious questions preoccupying the Myron-less Bolitar in the eight-episode Harlan Coben’s Shelter, adapted by the name-in-the-title Harlan & Charlotte Coben, which premieres today on Prime.

Coben writes thrillers, but the old dark house seen in
Shelter’s trailers looks rather spooky. It also starts with the two of the most terrifying words you can see together: “New” and “Jersey.” When he was a kid, Mickey Bolitar’s father Bradley was double-dog dared to sneak into the supposedly haunted mansion where the neighborhood weirdo “Bat Lady” lives. According to Aunt Shira, he was never the same afterwards. After his first eventful day of school, Mickey is also drawn to Bat Lady’s house, where she tells him his father is not really dead.

Of course, Bolitar would like to believe her, but he saw his father die before his eyes. Yet, the more he recalls the tragic accident, the more some strange little details stand out in his mind. The day started great, when he thought he was developing chemistry with the cute new girl in school, newbie to newbie, but then she ghosted him. The next day, he finds she has mysteriously withdrawn from school. He is suspicious and soon his new friends, geeky Arthur “Spoon” Spindell and gothy Ema Winslow, agree something sinister is afoot, presumably involving Bat Lady, a mysterious man with an octopus facial tattoo, and the still unsolved disappearance of Bradley Bolitar’s little league friend.

The tone of
Shelter is pretty dark, but you can still see the young adult roots. In fact, the best thing going for the series is chemistry shared by Bolitar, Spindell, Winslow, and Rachell Caldwell, the captain of the cheer squad, who joins their Scooby Drew Crew halfway through. It is consistently entertaining watching them snoop and investigate, even though we could do without so much attention to Caldwell’s straight frustrations with her dumb jock boyfriend and Winslow’s lesbian interest in the school’s leading online influencer.

Jaden Michael is believably angsty as Bolitar, but never to an obnoxiously overbearing degree.
 The wacky character of Spindell is a lot, but Adrian Greensmith keeps him kind of somewhat grounded, which is something. Abby Corrgian manages to convey Winslow’s sensitivity and intuition without making the character a complete wallflower. Howerver, the real discovery is Sage Linder, who outshines everyone as the gutsy, gun-toting Caldwell.

Constance Zimmer has a tough job, since she plays Shira Bolitar, replacing Myron, who was the commercial hook the source novel was surely originally sold with. However, she provides a nicely down-to-earth easy-to-identify-with adult influence om the series.

Shelter progresses, Tovah Feldshuh’s Bat Lady veers a little too far over to the wild side. Ultimately, the strange mystery woman is not exactly “problematic,” per se, but the way the series injects a very real historical tragedy into her backstory might still rub some viewers the wrong way. However, Didi Conn has a few surprisingly poignant moments as Mrs. Friedman, Bolitar’s history teacher, who seems to know more than she lets on.

Shelter addresses some very adult themes for a teen-ish kind of show. It works pretty well if you think of it as a show for grown-ups who fondly remember reading Hardy Boys mysteries, but want their nostalgia to reflect their current worldview. You can clearly pick up the Coben-esque elements. Recommended for adult fans of high school noir, Harlan Coben’s Shelter starts streaming today (8/18) on Prime.