Brave the sea of period TV offerings and you’ll generally find that they fit into one of three categories: soapy, romantic “mom shows” like Downton Abbey and The Gilded Age; brutal, intense “dad shows” like Peaky Blinders and The Knick; and sexy, postmodern “youth shows” like The Great, Dickinson, and Bridgerton. The Aussie series The Artful Dodger conveniently combines all three modes into an enjoyable zippy package that just happens to feature two of the most iconic characters Charles Dickens ever created: charismatic pickpocket Jack Dawkins (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), a.k.a. the Artful Dodger, and squirrelly crime lord Fagin (David Thewlis). Call it a something-for-everyone smorgasbord befitting an author who wrote for the masses.
The Artful Dodger (whose eight episodes all begin streaming on Hulu Nov. 29) announces its youth credentials straight away, with an opening montage set to Wolfmother’s “Joker and the Thief.” Fifteen years after the events of Oliver Twist, Brodie-Sangster’s now grown-up Dodger swaggers his way through a poker game, then makes a mad dash to the local hospital. Turns out he’s an up-and-coming surgeon… but only because this is an Australian colony in the 1850s, the operating room is a public gallery filled with a whooping and hollering crowd, and the patient is wide awake as the doctors prepare to saw his wounded leg off. Dodger makes a bet he can complete the entire operation in less than 29 seconds, and the episode’s energy doesn’t let up until that leg has audibly hit the ground.
In other words, you’ll know straight away if this bloody, bone-crunching miniseries is something you can stomach or not. Still, it’s worth noting that The Artful Dodger takes its cues more from something like Grey’s Anatomy than Game of Thrones. While each episode features at least one gory surgical set piece, the point here is less to luxuriate in historical bloodshed than to explore the evolution of modern surgery. As the show details, this is the era where things like anesthesia and germ theory were just being introduced to the medical field. And that gives The Artful Dodger’s brutality a sense of hope. The show is gritty, but not particularly grim.
Indeed, tonally, it doesn’t feel a million miles off from Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes movies, which gave a similar sense of modern vitality and comedic flair to their period settings. The Artful Dodger’s energy can be downright goofy at times, but always knowingly so, anchored by performers who know just how to fill its heightened period world. And in place of the classic Holmes and Watson dynamic, it finds its own two-hander in Dodger and his old crime boss.
You don’t need to know much about Oliver Twist to understand the relationship here: Dodger is a former kid criminal who escaped from prison, found a new sense of purpose in the royal navy, and tried to start over with a fresh slate in the distant land of Australia. Fagin is the selfish father figure who used and abused him, but also gave him just enough of a home that they’re inextricably tied together too. When Fagin shows up in Australia as a prisoner, he ostensibly blackmails Dodger into taking him on as a “convict servant.” But you also get the sense that even without the threat, Dodger would’ve had a tough time letting Fagin go off to die on the chain gang. They might not love each other, exactly, but they’re bound by too much shared history to ever truly be rid of each other either.
In a strong lead performance, Brodie-Sangster lends his innate boyish innocence a believable edge. His “Dodge” has the empathy of someone who knows what it means to suffer, but also the resilience and charisma of someone who knows how to survive. Thewlis, meanwhile, gobbles mouthfuls of scenery as he embodies a man so used to pulling cons, it’s unclear if Fagin himself even knows when he’s telling the truth.
The real grace note, however, is the addition of a third lead for the series: Maia Mitchell as Lady Belle Fox, the governor’s rebellious, science-minded daughter, who dreams of becoming the first female surgeon. She’s the sort of plucky, modern heroine who would feel right at home on a show like The Gilded Age, and her presence rounds out the series, assuring that it’s not just a masculine crime caper. If Fagin is the devil on Dodger’s shoulder coaxing him back to a life of theft, Belle is the ambitious angel encouraging him to revolutionize the medical field into something less brutal (and something more welcoming to brilliant women like her).
Though The Artful Dodger is more pulpy than intellectual, there are touches of depth in its exploration of classism, patriarchy, colonialism, and medical advancement. (Dickens would be proud.) And while the plotting is a little all over the place, the central characters are sharply written and the chemistry between the leads fantastic, particularly as a romance starts to blossom between Belle and Dodger. Whatever your preferred flavor of period piece TV, The Artful Dodger likely has something that will have you asking for more.