The act of creating television these days can sometimes seem like the end product of a series of throws at a dartboard full of existing intellectual property. Will Hollywood adapt a former TV show, a movie, a comic book, a novel, a toy? Will it be a prequel, a sequel, a reboot, a spin-off, or an update? A producer or network executive can choose their own adventure and end up with anything from the Fatal Attraction TV series (both a remake and a continuation, neither of them good) to Netflix's Wednesday (a spin-off and a reimagining). Rarely does the material being updated feel particularly in need of a revival, and even more rarely, as with something like Watchmen, does the end product feel particularly inspired.
Hulu's The Artful Dodger is a particularly vexing example of the need to make everything IP. Thomas Brodie-Sangster (The Queen's Gambit) stars as the titular character, the pickpocket from Oliver Twist whose story in that Charles Dickens novel ended with him arrested and shipped to the Australian penal colony. Creators James McNamara, David Maher, David Taylor pick things up in the 1850s, still in Australia, where the reformed Dodger is now a respectable, if undervalued, young surgeon going by the name Jack Dawkins. The surgical field in the 1850s was a wild west of untested innovations and outdated procedures, with surgeries attended like spectator sports. Dawkins is eager to break the rules and make his mark, which earns him the attention of Lady Belle Fox (Maia Mitchell), the governor's daughter. Lady Belle has read more about medicine and surgical advances than anyone she knows, but because she's a woman she cannot be a surgeon herself. In Jack, she's found someone who can benefit from her vast expertise and might also allow her entrance into the operating theater on the sly.
With Jack and Belle, The Artful Dodger has the makings of a zippy romantic comedy. Beyond the fact that they're both cute as buttons, they share a genuine passion for their work that both binds them together and occasionally creates conflict. Belle has the headstrong confidence of someone who's never had to scrape for her next meal and is much more willing to take chances; Jack is more empathetic about patient care and worried about losing his toehold on respectability if he makes a wrong move.
But their passion is undeniable, and while the pair doesn't tumble into romance in the four episodes available for review, it seems clear they’re headed in that direction. As they should — have they seen themselves? It's the 1850s, everything else is filthy, and they both look like gleaming Hollywood cuties!
For all the promise of fun, youthful romance set against the backdrop of bloody open wounds and advances in anesthesia — like a rom-com version of The Knick — there's something weighing down The Artful Dodger, and he's been dead for 150 years. Charles Dickens remains one of the most important figures in literature, and Oliver Twist is a beloved classic for a reason. But every attempt by McNamara, Maher, and Taylor to tie Jack's backstory as The Artful Dodger into the main plot ends up distracting from what's already working about the show.
None of this is the fault of David Thewlis, whose Fagin — Dodger's filthy and underhanded mentor in the ways of pickpocketing and general thievery — turns up in the first episode and tries to lure Jack back into a life of crime. Failing that, Fagin is prepared to fleece the benefactor class Jack depends on for advancement.
Thewlis does this kind of grimy, bottom-feeding, we-can't-keep-letting-him-get-away-with-this character so well, and he's a hoot to watch. It's strange to see a performance this fun and think you wish he wasn't there, but that's the case with The Artful Dodger. The more it becomes a story about a pickpocket and his wayward mentor trying to get back into a life of crime, the more generic it all seems. Suddenly, it's just another extension of IP, slapping a familiar name on a period crime drama in the hopes that viewers might have read Oliver Twist in school and are curious to see what the Artful Dodger is up to.
On the heels of Fagin comes Damon Herriman (Justified) as Captain Gaines, who is determined to prove that Jack and Fagin are committing these crimes. This only adds another layer of superfluous drama to the show. Gaines has his own story with a serially unfaithful wife, leading to subplots and character development all predicated on a crime story that feels completely rudderless.
In reverse-engineering the premise of a Dickens sequel, McNamara et al. fell backwards into a compelling pair of characters in Jack and Belle, two young surgeons against the world. The connection to Oliver Twist is now a bunch of detritus standing in the way of a sparkling romantic comedy. In the parlance of their title character, the producers picked their own pockets.
The Artful Dodger premieres November 29 on Hulu. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.
Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.