By Daniel Fienberg
November 28, 2023
When readers last spotted the Artful Dodger in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, the eponymous protagonist’s diminutive pickpocketing mentor had been “booked for a passage” — sentenced to transport to the Australian penal colony — for pilfering a silver snuff box. A big punishment for a small crime, especially since, within the context of the novel, the Dodger had been in the thrall of the scheming Fagin since before he could speak.
The fate of the Dodger, birth name “Jack Dawkins,” has been compelling enough to be the subject for multiple interpretations over the years — some imagining his life in Australia, others a return to London, some speculating about the child-thief’s full reform and others about a regression into deeper criminality.
In James McNamara, David Maher and David Taylor’s new Australian series The Artful Dodger — produced for Hulu in the States and Disney+ internationally — the character’s nimble fingers have been put to a new use. Closer to a PG-ish version of The Knick than anything substantively Dickensian, this take on the Artful Dodger is a lightly adventurous medical rom-com, emphasis on “light.” Despite the added maturity of the main character, nothing in The Artful Dodger acquires much emotion or depth, but thanks in large part to leads Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Maia Mitchell and, adding instant credibility, David Thewlis, there’s some playful entertainment to be found.
We lay our scene in the colony of Port Victory sometime in the 1850s. It’s 15 years after the events of Oliver Twist and, through unlikely circumstances, Jack Dawkins has become a decorated veteran and a trained surgeon. It’s a profession that has brought Jack some level of respectability, but only a little, since in this moment surgery is something of a bloody circus sideshow, the wanton hacking of limbs with limited prospect of patient survival. Still, Jack is good at what is basically a volunteer job, so he’s also gone deep into gambling debt with nefarious harbor master Darius Cracksworth (Tim Minchin).
Jack has agile hands and some biological understanding, but nothing compared to Lady Belle Fox (Mitchell), daughter of the colony’s blustery governor (Damien Garvey). For reasons that make little sense, the governor subscribes to all the latest medical journals, which are read only by Belle, who dreams of becoming a doctor herself. This isn’t a suitable profession for a young lady of her station, and her family wants her to just get married.
Adding immediate complications is the arrival of a new boat of convicts, including the long-incarcerated Fagin (Thewlis), who is eager to lure his former protégée back into a life of crime, which isn’t hard since Darius is threatening to remove Jack’s hands. Jack and Fagin are soon in the crosshairs of local law enforcement, embodied by hanging-happy Captain Gaines (Damon Herriman). This all offers Belle a way to blackmail Jack into letting her train as a cutter. Gouts of blood and steamy flirtations ensue.
It’s a decent idea for an Oliver Twist sequel, but the creators’ interest in the literary pedigree is, through the four episodes sent to critics, fairly limited. The first couple of episodes include multiple references to Fagin and Jack’s resentment of Oliver, of the sort that will produce a thrill of recognition from those who’ve read the novel — or, more likely, from those who know the musical or Oliver & Company. But it’s nothing that will confuse or alienate those who haven’t.
Any nods beyond those are negligible. Jack’s on-the-page heightened vernacular and his lovable speech impediment are gone. No huge loss there. He’s a former scoundrel trying to go legit, and if that doesn’t sound specifically Dodger-y, so be it.
More perplexing is the failure to do anything of note with the much-softened Fagin, whose assemblage of broad cons and cartoonish accents are notably different from the source material. I can’t imagine attempting to reframe Fagin without trying to do something substantive with Dickens’ generally antisemitic treatment of the character’s Jewishness, but even an episode in which Fagin scams a local priest ignores that integral aspect of the character. So I guess I can imagine it. I just don’t see the point.
The series emulates Dickensian names and character types, but very few of the supporting characters have any dimension to their personalities or voices, and the actual narrative has very little Dickensian complexity. It’s a lot of Fagin repetitively convincing Jack to do bad things, Jack relenting in order to pay his debts, and then the medical stuff, which is obviously the thing the writers are most invested in, albeit in a rudimentary way. Amid the viscerally depicted archaic procedures, Belle is constantly chirping about revolutionary ideas like microbes and germs and hygiene, which flummox everybody around her and make the character wildly precocious — The Knick took place nearly 50 years later and relied on a lot of the same “discoveries” — and just a wee bit insufferable.
That Belle still makes for a generally spunky heroine is attributable to Mitchell’s general verve and ability to wring humor out of Belle’s too-smart-for-the-room anachronisms. It’s easy to see how, in different hands, that “wee bit” of insufferability could be significantly more.
There’s also some real, albeit PG-ish, chemistry between Mitchell and Brodie-Sangster, whose casting is the series’ cleverest decision. Even if Jack isn’t written or even dressed to really conjure the Artful Dodger some fans might expect, the use of the all-grown-up Love Actually tyke is, in its own way, a nod to Dodger’s oversized jackets and hats. He’s puckish, and it’s impossible to look at Brodie-Sangster without seeing the child actor he used to be, but the preternatural wisdom he conveyed as a kid has become age-appropriate.
If Thewlis’ casting isn’t quite as “clever,” it’s because he’s so instantly and obviously right for the role that I had to check to make sure he’d never played an incarnation of Fagin before. Thewlis does wily-yet-decrepit as well as anybody and he makes the sympathetic side of Fagin much more believable than the scripts do. He could have been the “dark” Fagin from the book, but nobody’s asking him to be.
I’d love to see that, but it’s clear that The Artful Dodger wants to be as bright and poppy — or punky, based on the regular episode-opening scenes set to hard-driving modern rock songs — as any period dramedy with amputations and sexually transmitted diseases can be. Or maybe that’s just the clearly low-budget Aussie production values at work, since none of the sets are elaborate and none of the crowd scenes are overpopulated.
Maybe if The Artful Dodger attracts a big audience, the second season could get an influx of capital and might enable some more ambition (and perhaps the near-inevitable introduction of a grown-up Oliver Twist as some sort of Big Bad).
For now, viewers can consider themselves at home with Brodie-Sangster, Mitchell and Thewlis, while not committing just yet to considering themselves part of the family.