Why not? That’s what I kept asking myself about “The Artful Dodger,” a new series that plucks two characters out of Charles Dickens’s “Oliver Twist” and drops them into an Australian buddy comedy. It’s a little like borrowing Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester for a cozy little rom-com, or placing Holden Caulfield in the middle of a college sex romp. But: Why not?
In the construct of the show, which premieres Nov. 29 on both Hulu and Disney+, the kid formerly known as the Artful Dodger — his real name is Jack Dawkins — has grown into a man living contentedly down under. He served a jail sentence — Fagin, his criminal mentor back in London, left him to rot — and he eventually became a physician in the armed forces. Now, the hands so adept at slipping wallets and watches out of others’ pockets and into his own are performing surgery, and brilliantly at that.
Played by Thomas Brodie-Sangster, our hero remains bitter toward the cowardly Fagin (who is executed in “Oliver Twist,” but, well, never mind. Why not?). So when the dirt-caked old guy shows up in Australia with hopes of getting the band back together for some good old-fashioned thievery, Jack is not game nor is he amused. He worries that the people in his new life will wonder about his squalid new friend and uncover his criminal past, but Fagin sticks to him like the leech that he is.
Also, Dodge may need Fagin, it turns out. One of the smart twists on the show is that Jack has a serious gambling problem, and he is in deep debt with some bad guys who are threatening to cut off one of his hands unless they get paid soon. It’s not an original plot — those owed are mobster types with powerful connections, etc. — but it ties Jack to his past self, so that at least there is some link to the source. He’s not entirely reconstructed. In his desperation to get money, he just might need to be a little less dismissive of Fagin, who is sleeping on his floor and serving as his “assistant.”
It’s all familiar and good enough, and there is a love interest for Jack, the governor’s daughter, Belle (Maia Mitchell), a bright woman who desperately wants to be a surgeon despite the sexist norms holding her back. Like much in “The Artful Dodger,” there are no unexpected turns as it blithely skips forward, and we know that Jack and Belle are going to be will-they-or-won’t-they-but-of-course-they-will-ing for the duration.
What helps to make this curio of a show a little something more than a fast-paced distraction is David Thewlis, who plays Fagin. He’s too young for the role, but it doesn’t matter. He appears to be having a happy time as the slippery, self-serving fellow who can say anything with conviction if it suits his needs. He brings a touch of the Dickensian to the proceedings, and his energy adds buoyancy. At one point, he snakily talks his way out of digging up a grave, forcing Jack to do it himself, and it’s an amusing moment. Brodie-Sangster is good, too, not least of all visually. Somehow he looks like an adult version of Dickens’s “snub-nosed, flat-browed, common-faced” small boy who wore an adult’s coat.
There was another question I asked myself while watching the four episodes of “The Artful Dodger” made available for review: Why? But the answer to that question — why not just invent a new 1800s story about a surgeon in debt in Australia who is visited by a friend from his past? — is too easy. We live in a time when release schedules are so full, shows too quickly get lost in the shuffle. With a Dickens label on it, with some of the best-known characters in all of literature in the mix, the series will stand out from the crowd. The title, like the character, if not the series, is unforgettable.
THE ARTFUL DODGER
Starring: Thomas Brodie-Sangster, David Thewlis, Maia Mitchell, Damon Herriman, Susie Porter, Damien Garvey, Huw Higgenson
On: Hulu, Disney+. Premieres Wednesday, Nov. 29