Welcome to Up Next, a recurring column keeping an eye on what’s new in TV. This week, TV critic Valerie Ettenhofer checks in with a review of Prime Video’s new thriller Harlan Coben’s Shelter.
A decade into its foray into original programming, Prime Video hasn’t exactly made itself known for shows that shake up the streaming world. Sure, the platform occasionally brings audiences something excellent and ambitious – your Fleabags, your Underground Railroads – but for the most part, its bread and butter seems to be the same now as it was when Bosch hit the airwaves back in 2014. Prime Video is, first and foremost, a bestselling procedural thriller adaptation factory.
These adaptations are varied in quality but homogenized despite themselves, headed up by tough white guys like Jack Ryan, Jack Reacher, and, yes, Harry Bosch. Detectives, special agents, and military men cops seem to be the protagonists of choice for Prime Videos’ flagship series. At first glance, Harlan Coben’s Shelter sounds like the title of a show that would promise more of the same – an adaptation of a hit mystery book that has the potential to grow into a major series. It is all of that, but luckily for bored or adventurous Prime Video viewers, Harlan Coben’s Shelter is also pretty freaking weird.
The series begins with a mystery that soon splits into a dozen different fragments. Teenager Mickey Bolitar (Jaden Michael)’s father makes a mysterious phone call, and the family ends up in a fatal accident soon after. Mickey ends up back in his dad’s suburban hometown, where his aunt Shira (Constance Zimmer, always a highlight) takes him in. On the first day of school, Mickey meets a girl who disappears soon after. He also hears an urban legend about a creepy old house in his neighborhood and the woman who lives there. Before the pilot’s end, the show throws in a mysterious man in a suit, a second missing kid, a secretly significant song, an insidious butterfly tattoo, and several more pointed twists.
It doesn’t stop there. The series balances mysterious elements like Jenga pieces, stacking clues on clues throughout its first few episodes until it threatens to topple under the weight of so many intriguing elements. At a certain point, though, its conspiracy web reaches an almost Riverdale-level ludicrousness (Nazis! A guy with an octopus tattoo on his face!) that allows the show to circle back from melodrama into an enjoyable, quasi-camp adventure. Shelter is also capable of pulling off some serious moments, as it does well when it addresses Mickey’s mother’s mental health and, later, a case of awful child abuse.
Shelter is definitely a sometimes-silly show, but it’s held together by a handful of winning performances and writing that doesn’t pander to a YA audience. Mickey himself might be the least compelling part of the show (Michael is slightly wooden here, but the character is also just dull), but his sidekicks, wide-eyed goth Ema (Abby Corrigan) and charmingly geeky Arthur, AKA Spoon (Adrian Greensmith), are both captivating. Greensmith is a breakout star, imbuing a character who could easily fall on the wrong side of the witty/insufferable scale with heart and sweetness in addition to some truly funny humor. Zimmer also gets a great plot, playing a no-nonsense woman whose established life is shaken up by the return of her high school best friend (Missi Pyle) who once stole her boyfriend.
The show takes mysteries that briefly reach CW Channel-level ludicrousness and delivers them in bite-sized pieces that make them difficult to resist, doling out twists regularly to keep audiences hooked. It also lands in a much more emotionally realistic place by season 1’s end. Shelter may not pull off every silly red herring it attempts, but the majority of its pieces eventually come together to reveal a surprising and meaningful (if still unbelievable) storyline. Fans of teen mystery shows will likely dig Shelter, which doesn’t always feel like a YA series. The characters drop as many F-bombs as real-life teens (which is to say, a lot), and the adult characters’ plots are as fully fleshed out as the kids’ are.
Unfortunately, Shelter follows in the vein of many a Prime Video show in that it’s visually rather artless. Cornily stylized flashbacks abound, but it’s what’s missing that’s as frustrating as what’s not: in the right hands, the show could’ve sustained its convoluted mystery with a sheen of prestige TV aesthetics. Its precocious, dynamic kids call to mind the teens in Mike Flanagan shows like The Midnight Club, but the series doesn’t seem particularly caught up in framing, cinematography, or other elements that could’ve pushed the series to that level. If Prime Video has a generic thriller show house style, Shelter mostly fits right into it. The one exception is the compelling pilot, directed by Real Women Have Curves filmmaker Patricia Cardoso.
Overall, Shelter is a mixed bag, but at least it’s an incredibly interesting one. Fans of the Mickey Bolitar book series will find plenty to love here (though Mickey’s uncle Myron is absent, reportedly thanks to a Netflix rights deal), and newcomers to the saga will at the very least find the show’s twists propulsive and its characters entertaining. It’s worth watching the show through to the end if only to see how high that Jenga tower of wild clues can go without toppling.
Harlan Coben’s Shelter is currently streaming on Prime Video. Watch the series trailer here.
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