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Harlan Coben’s Shelter

Harlan Coben's Shelter season 1





Paul Asay

TV Series Review

It’s never easy being the new kid. But Mickey Bolitar has more on his mind than finding his algebra class and figuring out how to deal with the school bullies at Kasselton High.

His dad, Brad, died in a terrible car crash recently, so there’s that. His mom is in no state to raise a teen, apparently. So Mickey’s living with his aunt Shira these days, and their relationship is a little prickly.

And that’s just for starters. He makes enemies with Troy, the big man on campus. (Troy’s dad, the local police chief, has a problem with Mickey, too). The first girl he meets in school, Ashley, mysteriously disappears. Oh, and then there’s that crazy old woman in that crazy old house who tells Mickey that his father is alive.

The Stranger

Mickey knows, of course, that his dad died. He was there. He was riding shotgun, singing along to one of the family’s favorite songs when the semi smashed into the Bolitar SUV. Mickey watched as a paramedic tried, and failed, to save Brad.

But then he hears the same song playing from that crazy old house. Surely, that can’t be a coincidence. But things get weirder. When he sneaks inside, he notices the album cover from whence the song came is emblazoned with a blue butterfly. The same sort of butterfly that was scrawled inside Ashley’s locker. The same sort of butterfly tattooed on the paramedic’s arm.

The Bat Lady, the crazy old woman in that crazy old house, surely must have some answers. Just as surely, she won’t give them up easily or willingly. No, it’s up to Mickey to unravel the mysteries himself.

He won’t be doing so alone, however. Arthur “Spoon” Spindell knows his way around a computer and local folklore, and he’s willing to help. Ema Winslow, a sharp-tongued goth girl, will chip in, too.

But the investigation won’t be easy. It will likely be dangerous.

Oh, sure, it’ll be dangerous for our characters. That’s a given. But it might just pose some dangers to the viewer as well.

Deal Breaker

Harlan Coben is best known for his novels featuring Myron Bolitar, a fulltime sports agent and a sometime private eye. His books are notable not just for being taut, well-told thrillers, but for what they allegedly lack. His characters rarely swear, fans say. He deals with sexual situations with discretion. And while Coben’s books can indeed be violent, readers report that the author handles violent scenes with comparative restraint.

Which makes me wonder what happened with Prime Video’s Harlan Coben’s Shelter.

Shelter is Coben’s first Young Adult book. So you might assume that, as such, he’d make the story even cleaner. Its characters are in their mid-teens, and one would presume that most of its readers would fall into that age category, as well.

Likewise, the Prime Video series seems squarely aimed at a younger audience, and it’s ostensibly rated (by Amazon Prime) TV-14.

All of that—plus Coben’s alleged aversion to language in his novels—makes you wonder why the show has so many f-words.

It’s not the only problematic word we hear here; far from it. We hear plenty of other profanities, too. I’ve not read Coben’s Shelter, so the show makes me wonder: Is Coben’s original book an exception to the author’s aversion to foul language? Did he assume that his YA audience would expect more swearing than his more mature readers? Is it possible that Coben does swear in his books and that his fans ignore it? Or could it be that Amazon added the profanity to a story that clearly didn’t need it? And if that’s the case, why?

For me, those questions pose as prickly a mystery as Mickey’s own (albeit not nearly as deadly). And this whodunit either lays blame at the foot of Amazon or our permissive culture as a whole.

The show also embraces other elements not found in the original. Abby Corrigan, who plays Ema, told Variety that LGBT representation is stronger in the show than in the book. “In this adaptation Ema is queer. I’m also queer. I think it’s a really magical thing to have representation, especially at this time.”

Yeah, Harlan Coben’s Shelter has other problems: blood, bullies, bathroom humor and plenty else besides. But had Prime Video adhered closer to Coben’s original vision, Shelter might’ve been significantly more navigable.

As it is, for families looking for a good thriller and a respite from strong profanity, this adaptation offers no shelter at all.

Episode Reviews

Aug. 18, 2023—S1, Ep1: “Pilot”

After his father dies in a car crash, Mickey Bolitar is forced to move from California to Kasselton, New Jersey. He’s barely had time to memorize his locker combination before he’s inundated by mysteries, though. Why did Ashley, a fellow new student as well, ghost him? Why has she disappeared from school, too? Why won’t Mickey’s aunt let him visit his mother? And why is the Bat Lady, a woman who’s the subject of many a local legend, telling him that his dad is alive?

The car crash that claims Brad Bolitar’s life is pretty jarring and potentially disturbing. The semi-truck that hits the Bolitar SUV comes out of nowhere: The crash is violent, accompanied by glass and fire. Brad gets thrown from the vehicle, his arms and face bloodied; Mickey and his mother hang suspended from the car—still locked in by their seatbelts—and both of them are splotched with blood as well.

Someone is shot in the head, and we see a small bloody wound. Mickey engages in a rough game of pickup basketball. A couple of high school students almost come to blows. A student grabs another student’s hand and essentially disables him by twisting it. A policeman throws someone down on the ground. We hear about mysterious disappearances. A teacher discusses Nazi concentration camp fatalities—dangling a suggestion that some prominent people sent to those camps (such as Anne Frank) might actually be alive.

A bully sits down by a student outcast (Ema) to tease her (something we hear that he did to her last school year); she mocks him for defecating in his pants (using a much more crude term); when the bully stands up, there’s a brown patch on his rear. She apparently put a chocolate candy bar on the seat shortly before the bully sat down in anticipation.

When Mickey sneaks into an old house, he’s nearly discovered by an intimidating-looking man. Ema and Spoon make out behind a bush to distract the man (whom they think may be a police officer). Ema loudly lambasts the man for interrupting them and then asks why he’s exposing himself. (Spoon joins in.)

A song critical to the show’s core mystery contains an s-word: The entire Bolitan family sings the lyrics, including that word (which we hear repeated, courtesy a flashback or two), at the top of their lungs. We hear several other s-words used, along with nearly a dozen f-words. Other curses include “b–ch,” “crap,” “d–n,” “h—,” d-ck” and “p-ss.” God’s name is misused five times, and Jesus’ name is abused once.

Aug. 18, 2023—S1, Ep2: “Catch Me If U Can”

Mickey and Spoon are retrieved from jail by Mickey’s aunt, Shira. “This whole ‘getting arrested biweekly’ is not a sustainable lifestyle,” she says. But she has good news: Mickey’s mother, who’s being treated for depression, is being allowed a few hours away from the mental health facility. And Mickey’s thrilled to be able to see her. Meanwhile, he, Spoon and Ema continue their investigation of Ashley’s disappearance, while Bat Lady and a bald guy bury the teacher they murdered in Bat Lady’s backyard.

Ema tries to scrub off a temporary tattoo of a blue butterfly (an important recurring symbol in the show), but it won’t come off. When she asks the tattoo artist about it, he tells her that the butterfly is a symbol of Abeona, the Roman goddess tasked with protecting children. When Ema says that she doesn’t need protecting, the tattoo artist tells her, “maybe you’re the goddess.” (He adds that his “spirit” told him to use the design on her—but we see indications that he may be in league with nefarious elements.)

The male artist speaks effeminately and wears eye shadow. We see a tattoo design featuring a cartoon tiger with large breasts. There’s a suggestion that Shira and the police chief may have been engaged in some sort of relationship drama—perhaps an affair—which shattered Shira’s relationship with Hannah, her one-time best friend and the police chief’s wife. An art project of Ema depicts a skeleton crawling out of an apple.

Mickey’s mother drives to a local park filled with creeks and waterfalls, and both Mickey and Shira are worried that she went there to commit suicide. (They find her alive but weeping bitterly.) Mickey leaps on top of a moving car and, when the car stops, tumbles painfully on the pavement. (We later see someone treating, presumably, the scrapes on his back.) Characters carry guns and lie. Polaroids show a teen crouching on a floor, her thick mascara running to suggest the girl had been crying. (The suggestion is that the teen had been abducted and kept captive.) A character drinks a large glass of whiskey, much to his teen son’s annoyance.

Characters say the f-word 16 times—pairing it once with Jesus’ name. We also hear the s-word about five times. Other profanities including “d–n” and “h—.” God’s name is misused twice, and Jesus’ name is abused elsewhere once.

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Paul Asay

Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.

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