From “Veronica Mars” to “Nancy Drew,” mysteries and thrillers have found a space in YA television, and supernatural-centered shows like “Buffy: The Vampire Slayer” and “The Vampire Diaries” tend to have longevity and have even spawned spinoffs. Watching whip-smart teens take life by the balls, thwarting adult interference and figuring shit out for themselves has been continually enticing. In the new Prime Video thriller, “Harlan Coben’s Shelter,” based on Coben’s novel of the same name, a group of high-schoolers attempt to untangle a decades-long mystery involving a dead father, an unresolved missing child case and a terrifying old woman.
Executive produced by Coben and “13 Reasons Why” producer Allen MacDonald, “Harlan Coben’s Shelter” has a strong foundation, but loses its center in the twisted web of storylines.
Four months after his father’s tragic death in a car accident, a despondent 16-year-old Mickey Bolitar (Jaden Michael) finds himself living in the suburban town of Kasselton, New Jersey, under the care of his estranged aunt, Shira (Constance Zimmer). Though grief, anger and a new environment are usually a recipe for adolescent disaster, Mickey finds a connection with a fellow Kasselton newcomer, Ashley Kent (Samantha Bugliaro). However, the basketball star’s reprieve from his inner turmoil is short-lived when Ashley vanishes, sending him on a desperate search to discover what happened to her. He quickly realizes his family history and the loss of his father could be intertwined with the her disappearance.
Though Mickey has a Harry Potter complex, presuming he can do everything alone, he finds his own Ron and Hermione in two of Kasselton High School’s oddballs. Spoon (Adrian Greensmith) is sweetly awkward, and provides the laugh-out-loud one-liners in the show. Also, despite her standoffish vibes, Ema (Abby Corrigan) can’t help being sucked in by Spoon’s earnestness and Mickey’s determination.
In their quest to find Ashley, the trio and some other unexpected allies unfold secret after secret buried deep in Kasselton’s lore. For eight hour-long episodes, “Harlan Coben’s Shelter” hits all the typical teen dramatic beats. Subplots about crushes, unhappy parents, anguish and loneliness buzz around the characters. Unfortunately, these themes don’t move the story forward. Instead, they slow
down the narrative and cast a mundane tone over the show. With many YA TV shows, viewers are asked to suspend disbelief to follow a frenzy of genre tropes. But with “Shelter,” despite the heartfelt acting from Michael, Greensmith and Corrigan, these arcs feel at odds with the thriller overall. Other subplots — including a mysterious tattoo artist, unanswered questions about Mickey’s hospitalized mother and the ending of the school jock’s parents’ marriage — might be building blocks for a second season. But they needed to be more cohesive in this season.
Instead of the pulse-pounding chiller it promises viewers, “Harlan Coben’s Shelter” works like a frustrating thousand-piece puzzle, with chunks and threads of the narrative only clicking together in the last moment. The heavy-handedness of the plot, with characters and timelines bending and twisting around one another, is the main issue with the show. When YA serial thrillers work well, a big bad is combated or unraveled in each episode. An overarching question is often to be solved at the season’s conclusion: Netflix’s “Wednesday” is a well-done example. Since “Shelter” is an adaptation of a book and a spinoff to another book collection, there are dozens of fragments around the Bolitairs and Kasselton to connect, leading to lengthy, dull stretches of exaggerated emotions and tiresome missions which appear formulated to address specific current societal concerns including depression, sex trafficking and obsessive social media use.
While the conundrum concerning Ashley’s disappearance and the old woman’s (Tovah Feldshuh) connection to Mickey and his family remains intriguing, the small revelations within the season are almost too mundane to hold the viewer’s attention through the season finale. Moreover, some storylines felt completely outlandish and forced, even for a teen drama. These scenarios could have been altered or left on the editing floor for tighter, sharper episodes that would have allowed the dark revelations in “Harlan Coben’s Shelter” to pave the way for some heart-racing excitement.
The first three episodes of “Harlan Coben’s Shelter” premiere Aug. 18 on Prime Video, with new episodes dropping weekly on Fridays.