A few minutes into the first episode of McDonald & Dodds season two, Martin Kemp’s character greets the hot air balloon rental guy with a friendly elbow bump. A minute later, a taxi draws up – and is the driver wearing a face mask and face shield? Why, yes he is (but the passenger isn’t). Because DCI McDonald and DS Dodds are living in an almost post-COVID world, and this is a vision of the future we might one day experience.
Frankly, apart from all the murders, it’s not too bad.
In fact, despite the elbow-bumping, there is no actual mention of coronavirus in the first feature-length episode, at all – just little nods to the fading presence of a pandemic.
The first verbal acknowledgement only comes in episode two, and that’s when I start trying to work out exactly how far into the future this whole thing is actually set. “He said he had to go into a two-week isolation because of a COVID outbreak,” says one character. “Two weeks in isolation had us at each other’s throats,” says another. And it emerges that, three months ago, there was a COVID outbreak at a nightclub in Bath.
So, let’s play a game: it’s at least three months after 21st June 2021, the earliest date that the nightclubs re-open. It’s after 21st September – possibly, looking at the weather, it’s even spring/summer 2022. Encouragingly, Track and Trace is clearly working a lot better – hurrah! All the nightclub-goers were properly checked in to the venue, and after a clubber tested positive they were contact-traced and ordered into two weeks of self-isolation. Which they all dutifully obeyed, alongside their households.
The outbreak seems to have been properly contained, and now everyone is back to taking weekend breaks / going clubbing / having wild parties. The streets are a little quiet, but life is mostly normal.
That said, everyone is spending a lot of time outdoors. Considering that COVID isn’t entirely gone (see: nightclub outbreak), this is very wise. Our characters have adopted the habit of outdoor dining, and you’ll find them sitting outside cafés (eating chips with butter, or Bath buns) and sipping possibly-poisoned cocktails in heated patio areas. The police are less cooped-up in their police station, and they have a lot more al fresco catch-ups. Our victims die in woodlands and on breezy railway tracks. Where possible, our suspects are confronted in open-air tourists destinations, like the Roman Baths.
None of this makes for bad television. As for the embrace of the outdoors, it’s also a fair guess at what things might actually look like, once COVID is largely-but-not-quite under control.
But watching television in the age of corona can be a jarring experience, whichever way you look at it. Since March 2020, I’ve found myself wincing at crowd scenes, hugs, handshakes, and close contacts of all kinds – and having to remind myself that all this was probably filmed pre-COVID. Halcyon days! On the other hand, you’ve got the weirdness of socially-distanced filming; Strictly Come Dancing‘s Claudia Winkleman inching away from the contestants in the Clauditorium as she tries to maintain two metres. Keep back, Bill Bailey! Stay behind the dotted line!
Sure, several dramas have now been made during the pandemic, without mentioning the pandemic or allowing its effects to be seen on-screen. For some shows, that’s the only option; after all, December’s Call the Midwife Christmas special was set in 1965, so the only visible adjustments they made were to introduce face masks to the delivery room (actually more historically accurate, anyway). For others, it’s a creative choice to ignore the pandemic: Death in Paradise season 10 made no mention of the disease, which apparently had no impact on the fictional island of Saint Marie.
But McDonald & Dodds is one of the first dramas I’ve watched that has opted to actually acknowledge the pandemic as a thing that happened – and as a thing that, in-universe, is now pretty much over. It’s quite striking.
Tala Gouveia, who plays DCI Lauren McDonald, told press: “I think it’s done nicely, it’s just sort of little hints… I don’t think we really want to watch shows about COVID! I think we’re a bit done with it. So I like that it’s in there a little bit, with elements of: yes, that’s our world or an idea of what our world might be like, down the line, but it’s not too in-your-face.”
“You’ve got to acknowledge it,” says Jason Watkins, who stars as DS Dodds. “It sort of has to be acknowledged.”
The show’s approach is made even more striking by the fact that, as season two goes out, we’re still very much in lockdown.
That is possibly not what the production team envisioned when they filmed these new episodes in September and October, pre-Second Wave, when things looked a little more optimistic. Maybe they hoped that the real world would match up with the on-screen world by then.
But Gouveia’s right: it’s true that it’s not too in-your-face. And that’s partly what I find so interesting. The team has taken the reality of filming in the time of COVID (with bubbles, testing, social distancing, masks and more), and built certain elements into both the on-screen interactions and the storyline itself.
The drama is certainly not about COVID – but COVID is there, matter-of-factly, in the background. Is this a path other TV shows will follow? Are we going to see a lot more of this in the next few years; an acknowledgement of this thing we’ve all collectively been through, that has shaken up all of our worlds? Will characters casually refer back to this time of lockdowns and social distancing?
Honestly, I’m not sure how I feel about COVID entering the world of McDonald & Dodds (a gentle, diverting ITV crime drama). It’s weird to watch, but it would have been weird not to include, but everything is weird at the moment anyway. And I should say one thing: if building COVID into the reality of the show helped the team actually get this thing filmed, then that is a major upside. Because bringing a big show like McDonald & Dodds back during a pandemic – now that is quite the achievement, however you do it.