Tuesday, November 28, 2023

The Artful Dodger, on Hulu

In England, their lives were Dickensian, literally. Jack Dawkins is still an ex-convict, but who isn’t, in 19th Century Australia? Now he is a man of medicine, but Fagin will always be a scheming slimeball. Dawkins knows that, but he opts to keep the cad close in creators James McNamara, David Maher, and David Taylor’s eight-part Oliver Twist sequel series, The Artful Dodger, which premieres tomorrow on Hulu.

Dawkins, a.k.a. “The Artful Dodger,” is now a surgeon, but in the wild and wooly colony of Australia, he still must live by his wits to earn money. Unfortunately, he owes 26 Pounds to a cheating card-sharp gangster, who aims to collect either the money or his hand. Fagin arrives just in time to suggest several dodgy capers, all of which inevitably lead to more trouble.

Nevertheless, Dawkins is a reasonably talented and conscientious medical man, thanks to his late, redeeming master. In fact, the clueless governor’s headstrong eldest daughter, Lady Belle Fox wants him to be her mentor her in surgical medicine. Even in Australia, medicine is not considered a proper pursuit for a lady, but Fox is not very traditional and the reluctant Dawkins does not strike her that way either.

McNamara, Maher, Taylor, and their fellow writers do a nice job inserting Dawkins and Fagin into new picaresque misadventures. They also remain mindful of all their awkward shared history from
Oliver Twist. Ironically, Dickens’s sympathetic title orphan is often referred to as a double-crossing villain throughout Artful Dodger. However, Fox’s constant attempts to enlist Dawkins in her crusades for gender equality and medical modernization grow tiresome. Of course, she is totally right and the backwards Colony establishment are invariably fools and knaves. We have heard this sort of bickering so many times before, it just feels shopworn here.

David Thewlis appears so decrepit as a Fagin, viewers will worry he could keel over at any time. Nevertheless, it is highly entertaining to see him roguishly chew the scenery. He really is a slimy old snake, but a compulsively watchable one. As Dawkins, Thomas Brodie-Sangster gamely serves as Thewlis’s straight man and his guileless patsy. However, his Tracy-and-Hepburn chemistry with Maia Mitchell is flat and uninspired.

Based on the first four episodes provided for review,
The Artful Dodger works relatively well when it remains true to the colorful Dickens source material, but it bogs down whenever it starts to reflect a more “modern” sensibility, which probably should not surprise anybody. It is all rather amusing when it stays faithful to the classic characters and much less so when it doesn’t. Still somewhat recommended for fans of Dickens and the many different incarnations of Oliver Twist, The Artful Dodger starts streaming tomorrow (11/29) on Hulu.