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The Artful Dodger Review: Hulu Brings The Pickpocket Back In Solid New Drama

  • Strong performances from Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Maia Mitchell, and David Thewlis
  • Intriguing premise
  • Conflict between medicine and crime drama
  • Hasn't found its footing yet

Charles Dickens' seminal classic "Oliver Twist" features an unambiguously happy ending — for Oliver, at least. But we're left to wonder what fate befell his criminal compatriots, something that the new series "The Artful Dodger" seeks to resolve. It takes one of Dickens' most likable rogues and imagines a new future for him in Australia. The light dramedy set in the 1800s is uneven but undeniably endearing. It works much better as a period medical drama with a hint of romance than a continuation of Fagin and the Artful Dodger's fractious relationship, but Thomas Brodie-Sangster's spry performance as Jack Dawkins with the scenery-mangling David Thewlis as Fagin makes the show more fun than it has any right to be.

Fifteen years after the events of "Oliver Twist," Jack Dawkins — known to the criminal underworld of London as the light-fingered Artful Dodger — has started a new life. At the age of 13, he was abandoned by Fagin and thrown into prison, only escaping with the help of a naval officer, who saw his potential and trained him as a surgeon. Now a respectable — if depressingly impoverished — doctor in the Australian colony, he has a place in society where no one knows about his thieving background. But almost immediately after "The Artful Dodger" begins, two things happen to threaten that.

First, he accumulates a significant gambling debt, his only way of making money since surgeons are paid with room and board, and Jack must pay up or the local card cheat will cut off one of his hands. As if that prospect looming over his head isn't enough, his long-lost pseudo-father, Fagin, shows up, having been transported to Australia for one crime or another. Fagin is delighted to see Jack, but he's also looking out for number one: He threatens to expose the past of the Artful Dodger unless Jack protects him. To avoid the hangman's noose, Jack has to rely on not just Fagin, but the plucky governor's daughter, Lady Belle Fox (Maia Mitchell), who offers her support in exchange for Jack training her as a surgeon.

The Dodger himself

There's no possible way that "The Artful Dodger" would work without the right actor as Jack. Thomas Brodie-Sangster is incredibly charming in the role, with both a rogueish appeal and a slightly underfed look that perfectly fits the scrappy former thief. There's a history to his interpretation of the character that allows us to see where he came from as well as the man he has become. His Jack is confident, perhaps even arrogant, but most of all displays a talent for his chosen career that provides the narrative thrust throughout the early part of the season. 

He is threatened with the loss of his hand, and by extension, his livelihood, one that has offered him a position in polite society, authority, and respect. The throughline of pickpocketing skills to surgery is a clever one, making Jack's transition believable. We can't help but empathize with this character who has managed against all odds to carve out a new life for himself. Brodie-Sangster has wonderful chemistry with both Maia Mitchell and David Thewlis, with both relationships marked by complete and utter exasperation.

Period medical drama vs. criminal hijinks

Belle and Fagin pull Jack in two directions, creating two completely different branches of the show's narrative arc, which don't entirely mesh with one another. The show is at its best when it allows Jack and Belle to explore 19th-century surgery, and the narrative of a brilliant doctor with an unsavory past who struggles to bring modern medicine to colonial Australia is compelling enough even without the "Oliver Twist" angle. But although David Thewlis makes a great Fagin and there's plenty of material to mine in their relationship, their dynamic ends up becoming rather repetitive, even over the course of just the first four episodes. Jack complains about Fagin abandoning him as a child, Fagin gets him involved in some criminal scrape to try to reignite his passion for thievery — wash, rinse, repeat. Perhaps in the future, the show's writers will delve into something more complex, but the actors are not given much to play with thus far. This is not to say that the medical aspects of the show are without fault, either: At a certain point, you lose track of the number of times they do a certain surgery "for the first time ever in history," which wears thin as it stretches credulity.

Despite these flaws — which may be ironed out as the show develops and finds its footing — "The Artful Dodger" is a much more enjoyable watch than its Guy Ritchie-esque trailers would have audiences expect. Thomas Brodie-Sangster is a likable and charming incarnation of the grown-up Dickensian thief, and his efforts to be a good person and a good doctor amidst the rugged Australian outback provide the narrative thrust of the show. The Artful Dodger may not have fully stolen our hearts yet, but he's certainly on his way.

"The Artful Dodger" premieres on Hulu on November 29.