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McDonald & Dodds review: Formulaic but dangerously addictive

There are many, many reasons to despise McDonald & Dodds (ITV), returning now for its second run.

It’s a formulaic police procedural, for a start, and you’d think the world had had enough of them. Like the coronavirus, they’re everywhere, and new more disturbing variants keep evolving, some more insidious than others, but built around the same basic genomic make-up and ready to invade your life. M&D is set in gorgeous Bath, presumably because Oxford is still Morse’s manor, Cambridge would be a bit too obvious and abroad too expensive. It’s also a buddy-cop format – two contrasting personalities thrown together and somehow rubbing along and developing mutual respect, that sort of thing, which is not exactly innovative.

In this case, it’s millennial DCI Lauren McDonald (Tala Gouveia), all gobby and ex-Met, bossing babyboomer DS Dodds (Jason Watkins), all beige anorak and nerdy. The cultural and creative tensions are precisely as you’d expect.

Yet… somehow the thing works, and it kept me very happily occupied for most of two hours, much against my better judgement, and almost against my will. The premise of the story is intriguing. Five successful friends go up in a hot air balloon, but only four of them return to earth safely. The four survivors are all 1980s icons, and played with knowing aplomb by real 1980s icons Martin Kemp, Patsy Kensit, Cathy Tyson and Rupert Graves (brilliant as a virtual facsimile of Peter York, complete with fine dry wit). We’re asked to believe that they’ve all been living together in various mansions for the past four decades, which is pushing things a bit. It looks like they somehow conspired to murder their victim, the fifth passenger (Vince Leigh), who we learn is a parasitic blackmailer, but it turns out that, erm, the balloon was sabotaged by a complete stranger, the air accident inspector (Rob Brydon) who comes to help investigate the case. Again, pushing it a bit; the killer’s motives and involvement are the product of a web of frankly impossible coincidences. So the plot’s a bit rubbish too.

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Tala Gouveia and Jason Watkins as contrasting detectives in ‘McDonald & Dodds’

Yet I was carried along like the five amigos in their deadly hot air balloon ride across the Somerset hills, with little control over my compulsion to solve a puzzle that wasn’t worth solving. The filming is nicely done, and the 1980s detailing (music from Japan; Mark 1 VW Golf convertible; Sunday Times magazine) is extremely impressive. I think, though, what won me over was the way that the actors look like they’re enjoying themselves – because it’s not Chekhov at The National, is it? The fact they ham it up ever so slightly (Kemp in particular coming over all Ronnie Kray) excuses an awful lot.

It’s Sunday night ITV escapism at its best. It doesn’t really matter that the murderer couldn’t possibly have known that the music producer he was framing was into weight training, or that the victim wouldn’t have known about the surprise hot air balloon expedition anyway. Working out who dunnit in an episode of M&D is like spending far too long doing a huge sudoku, a compulsive mission of pure logic where you consciously uncouple from reality. Pointless yes, a bit corny, certainly, but M&D is dangerously addictive.