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Review: An Unskillful Follow-Up to a Classic, "The Artful Dodger"


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    At the end of Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist, Jack Dawkins, the impish pickpocket known as the Artful Dodger, is presumably transported from London to Australia after being caught attempting to pickpocket. Fagin, the old man who masterminded the gang of juvenile criminals of which Dawkins was a part, had abandoned him, while Oliver Twist had been delivered back into the hands of his wealthy benefactor.

    James McNamara and Jeffrey Walker’s The Artful Dodger sees “Dodge” (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) living lawfully in Australia years later. Always renowned for his fast fingers, he has traded life as a pickpocket for a distinguished career as a surgeon. All would be well except that Dodge has racked up a sizeable gambling debt with a cards cheat, Darius (Tim Minchin), who’s threatened to cut off one of his hands unless he pays the money in full.

    Dodge’s quest to find the required sum happens to coincide with the reappearance of Fagin (David Thewlis), tempting him to return to his old ways, and it’s from there that the Hulu show’s two-pronged story unfolds. One concerns Dodge and Fagin, now the former’s personal servant, attempting a heist and facing the consequences of its failure, while the other revolves around Dodge’s rivalry with fellow surgeon Rainsford Sneed (Nicholas Burton) and simultaneous endeavors to train Lady Belle Fox (Maia Mitchell), who aspires to be the first female surgeon.

    In the four episodes made available to press for review, The Artful Dodger appears to be an entirely unserious sequel to Dickens’s story. Fagin, who was an elderly man in the novel, is now, despite Thewlis’s modest 60 years, positively ancient. Dodge’s surgeries look more like a game of Operation than real medical procedures, and one particularly odd scene sees his attempt to treat Lady Belle’s mystery illness turn into an erotic moment.

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    The series doesn’t worry about taking the historical period in which it’s set literally either. It’s about as Victorian as Bridgerton is Regency-era, with the setting being mainly an excuse for characters to roam around in extravagant costumes. And like that Netflix series, The Artful Dodger happily leans on anachronisms, such as a deliberately incongruous rock soundtrack.

    All this might be excusable if the series were funnier. But Dodge is barely given any quippy one-liners, and the majority of the jokes are cringingly made at the expense of Lady Fanny Fox (Lucy-Rose Leonard), Belle’s sister, simply because of her desire to get a husband.

    The decision to focus the series on Dodge is at least a good one. Street-smart, undyingly loyal, and grown up beyond his years, he is, in many ways, a much more interesting protagonist than goody-two-shoes Oliver. And while, in the book, Oliver had a network of secret allies, Dodge had no one to rely on but himself and Fagin. As such, his relationship with Fagin—and the heavy blow of his betrayal—is fertile ground for emotional and narrative exploration.

    Brodie-Sangster, however, is much too restrained and posh-sounding for Dodge. Yes, the series reimagines Dodge as a reformed gentleman, but there’s nary a glimmer of mischief—or even the occasional hint of a Cockney accent—poking through his polished façade. In departing from most of the usual hallmarks of the Dickensian world—from its vividly atmospheric descriptions of London to its host of complex personalities—all The Artful Dodger offers is flimsy comedy, half-baked characterizations, and a dubious romantic subplot.

    Score: 

     

    Cast: Thomas Brodie-Sangster, David Thewlis, Tim Minchin, Nicholas Burton, Maia Mitchell, Lucy-Rose Leonard  Network: Hulu

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