Harlan Coben's Shelter Review: A Stellar Cast Transcends A So-So Story

RATING : 6 / 10
  • Fantastic performances
  • Bat Lady and her cronies’ motives are hard to grasp
  • Ashley's story isn’t especially innovative

The name Harlan Coben has been floating around the film and television industry for a while now, but this is the first series that prominently bears his name before the title. It's a good thing, too: "Shelter" isn't exactly the kind of title that sticks in your mind, but "Harlan Coben's Shelter"? Well, at least it's more original. And that's the thing with this series. It's not the most unique YA series, but it is well done and even, in places, genuinely surprising.

"Harlan Coben's Shelter" starts with a car crash. Mickey's (Jaden Michael) parents have just moved back to America so Mickey can play basketball during his senior year in high school, but then one night a truck runs right into their car. Mickey and his mother (Narci Regina) survive, but his father (Kristoffer Polaha), who's thrown from their vehicle, doesn't — shattering their lives. Mickey goes to live with his father's sister, his Aunt Shira (Constance Zimmer), in New Jersey, while his mother recovers from her depression in an in-treatment facility. But he's pulled into a mystery when a girl he likes, Ashley (Samantha Bugliaro), mysteriously vanishes after attending school for a single day.

Soon, he's teamed up with Ema (Abby Corrigan) and Spoon (Adrian Greensmith) aka Arthur, outcasts but also really nice people who want to help with the search. They all believe Bat Lady (Tovah Feldshuh), the town freak, has something to do with the disappearance, so they go to investigate and find much more than they bargained for. In the course of their journey, they find a lot of things that they thought were missing and even pick up a fourth partner, the popular Rachel (Sage Linder), who finds she likes hanging out with them.

At the same time, Mickey continues to grieve for his father as his mother attempts to get better. Shira, who normally lives in Seattle, reconnects with her best friend from high school, Hannah (Missi Pyle), who happens to be the mother of Mickey's basketball rival (Brian Altemus). There's a lot going on in "Harlan Coben's Shelter," and some scenes are more interesting than others. But all in all, the series works because of the excellent performances by most of the cast.

Fantastic acting

The acting in the show is impressive. Constance Zimmer as Shira and Missi Pyle as Hannah are great as former best friends remembering what they lost when the former moved away. While Shira's album cover sweatshirts, like Hole's "Live Through This" and Nirvana's "In Utero," are a little on the nose — not to mention way too clean to really be that old — the rekindling of her relationship with Hannah is tender and sweet despite the fact that both actresses are too old to have graduated from high school in the late '90s.

Likewise, Abby Corrigan as Ema, Adrian Greensmith as Spoon, and Sage Linder as Rachel are fantastic as Mickey's friends. The three of them are good at having their own agendas while still coming together to find out what happened to Ashley. And Jaden Michael is wonderful as Mickey, a teen who carries the weight of the world on his shoulders even if the people in his life don't want him to.

Even the supporting actors are good; Didi Conn as Mrs. Friedman and Alexa Mareka as Whitney are particularly noteworthy. The only one who I had a hard time with was Tovah Feldshuh as Bat Lady. While I think Feldshuh is great in every role she takes on, here she has trouble with the character's accent, and it's distracting. Plus, she's saddled with trying to make a character seem scary and then understandable in the span of eight episodes.

Obscure motives

The motives of Bat Lady and her accomplices are what make this story harder to get on board with than it should be. At first, she and the man who appears to be her henchman (Hunter Emery) appear scary. They murder someone in the first episode, break into Mickey's house in the second, and almost take out a police officer in the fourth — plus they're remarkably cryptic in just about everything they say. Even Bat Lady's henchman, when he appears independently in the second episode, tells Mickey she shouldn't have told him that his father was alive. Why? Not because it's not true but because she shouldn't have said that, whatever that means.

This makes their motivations hard to grasp. Are they genuinely this mysterious, or are they just being portrayed that way? They doctor photos instead of just telling people what they need to know, get fake tattoos on their faces to scare people, and generally seem intimidating. The trouble is that their reasons for doing these things don't make a lot of sense. By the time the credits roll on the last episode, this has all been sorted out, but the question of why it took so long remains.

There are plenty of reasons to recommend this series, but the vagaries of this part of the story are not among them. While the producers have assembled an ace cast that can present things believably, they've fallen down on the job with these particular characters. Their presentation of information when it comes to the Bat Lady and her cronies is selective, and the narrative suffers for it. That said, there's enough narrative momentum in storylines that are only tangentially related to Bat Lady that the story still ends up being fairly compelling.

The fact is that this is a less-than-expertly told narrative that nonetheless has a lot to like about it. The cast is fantastic all the way through, and that saves some of the more egregious story beats from seeming as silly as they actually are. Though the story of saving Ashley is nothing crime fans haven't seen before, the actors all play their parts well enough that they manage to sell it. The emotions they call up seem genuine and real, making the questionable parts of the narrative easier to dismiss. "Harlan Coben's Shelter" isn't a slam dunk, but if you're looking for something easy and sporadically intriguing to pass the time, you could do worse.

"Harlan Coben's Shelter" premieres on Friday, August 18 on Prime Video, with new episodes premiering until September 22.

This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the series being reviewed here wouldn't exist.