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Friday, June 30, 2006

2.16 --- Shelter Skelter

Directed by : Martha Coolidge
Written by : Robin Love & Ron Cobb (story by Ron Cobb)
Starring : Joe Mantegna, Jon Gries, Joan Allen
First aired : 21st of May, 1987.

Meet Harry Dobbs (Joe Mantegna, Bugsy, The Godfather pt. III), a full-time right winger and survivalist par excellence, and a part-time husband and parent. Harry's big secret is that he, in his basement, has constructed a complete fallout shelter, with food, air, and all that jazz enough to last him and his family a whole year if it need be. His wife Sally (Joan Allen, Manhunter, Face/Off) is not enamored by this hobby of his, but Harry is adamant that it will eventually come handy.

As Sally takes their children for a trip to her sister, Harry is visited by Nick (Jon Gries, Men in Black, Napoleon Dynamite), a timid fellow who works as the sales clerk in Harry's gun shop. As the TV brings recent news about a new middle eastern crisis and president being evacuated from the white house, Harry and Nick get comfortably drunk, and Harry decides to let Nick in on his secret, taking him on a "shelter tour".

Down there, Harry brags with all his survival gear, and is especially proud to showcase the communications system, with a buried antenna which can force its way out under piles of debris. He props the antenna up as a demonstration and turns on the TV, only to hear the shocking news - Russian cities are getting evacuated, and an all-out nuclear war is imminent. Harry dashes to make a phone call to Sally and tries to convince her to drive home, but Sally shrugs this off as just another one of his paranoia assaults. The moment he hangs up the receiver, everything around him starts dissolving in a blaze of light - it started. Harry quickly runs to the shelter, and manages to save him - and Nick, still sitting there - from a certain demise.

Six weeks pass by, and radiation levels outside are still the same. The communication system is broken, as the antenna stayed on the surface during the assault, so the survival duo can't make any contact with the rest. Nick soon overhears people talking through the door and decides to call for help, but Harry stops him, convincing him it's the scavengers on the outside.

A year later, Harry is still optimistic world will change for better, but Nick is getting sick of it. In act of desperation, he flees the shelter, only to return some time later wholly contaminated and dying. Harry, who assumes from his ravings that a nuclear winter reigns outside, refuses to let him in, arguing that they would both die from radiation poisoning.

Finally, with supplies exhausted, Harry cracks up, and readies himself to leave the shelter, fully armed and wearing war paint. As he steps out, we are shown the desolate images of his little town wasted...only to be quickly intercut with normal flora and fauna of the functional human world ! We learn that the little town Harry lived was pulverized by an accident - a bomber taking off from a nearby airbase had its nuclear bomb detonated while taking off, and the blast levelled the whole town. The death of everyone was not in vain though, as the world leaders realized the folly of nuclear war, and gave up their intentions to obliterate themselves. To prevent radiation spread, the whole of town with its ruins was encapsuled in a big radiation-proof dome, which became an anti-war monument.

Sally and her children, still alive thanks to that fateful trip, are just happening to be visiting the monument, and they lay flowers to the mass grave of people who died there. Asked by her son if this is where their father is buried, Sally briefly confirms and hugs the both of them, looking at the dome.


A very strong episode exploting the 80's cold war frenzy, Shelter Skelter is one of the more solid season 2 entries. A strong cast, spearheaded by excellent Mantegna, helps this one work to its full potential.

Mantegna's Harry Dobbs is a character which is just over the top repulsive. He completely ignores his daughter, mistreats his wife, and teaches his son how to use a gun at the age of seven. He is completely obsessed with the nuclear war, even thinking it might be a good thing, ridding the world of all the "filth" such as "rock stars" and "pornography". But the filth in the end turns out to be him, as he's left buried alive within the walls of the "peace dome". Jon Gries, who many of you might remember as Uncle Rico from 2004. indie hit Napoleon Dynamite, acts as the excellent counterpart to Mantegna's Harry - initially timid, but getting progressively more "out there" as the fallout wears on both of them.

The director, Martha Coolidge, seems to have a knack for nuclear war stories, as she previously handled another antiwar standout, season 1's Quarantine (as well as Night of the Meek remake). All in all, a delight to watch - very somber throughout, with a neatly incorporated twist at the ending I really didn't see coming.

TZ Trivia : two holdovers here - Danica McKellar, of Wonder Years fame, previously appeared in Her Pilgrim Soul as the infant version of Nola. And Geoff Witcher, briefly appearing as the TV anchor, is to be seen in A Saucer of Loneliness ... playing a TV anchor.

Odd trivia : the title "Shelter Skelter" is obviously inspired by the Beatles song "Helter Skelter", which in turn inspired Charles Manson to do his thing. Oddly enough, Jon Gries appears in a '76. movie dealing with the Manson trials called Helter Skelter. And who plays Manson in it, you may ask ? Why, it's Steve Railsback, who you might remember as the conscious trucker from Dead Run. Ah, IMDB is such a wonderful thing !

Comments on "2.16 --- Shelter Skelter"


Blogger Wi Fa Ru said ... (7:45 AM) : 

Man this blog rocks!!

Every time I've finished reading one of your reviews, I feel like I've seen the episode myself!

I can't wait to read more.

- Will from Basketball


Anonymous Metin said ... (1:09 AM) : 

This one of the best episodes. I watched the original when it is aired back in 80's, I still remember every bit of it. Thanks.


Blogger Matthew Maloney said ... (5:14 PM) : 

I have to disagree somewhat. While I thought the story was very interesting and the script was great, I thought the actor playing Harry didn't quite fit the bill. In fact both actors weren't great truth be told. I think if there was some great actors here this one could have been a classic. They reminded me of a pair of B movie actors.

Also, I found it a bit weird that someone so level headed would be married to someone like Harry. It just wasn't believable. Again, maybe the wrong actress for that role too.

Missed opportunity here.


Blogger The Big Guard Dawg said ... (11:55 AM) : 

Who played the female news reporter at the end, was that Pat Harvey?


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