Festive Downton a bit of a turkey
I've always thought 'Christmas specials' were supposed to be set at Christmas. It makes sense, when you think about it.
Had we been treated to some snow, or maybe just a tipsy Violet Crawley, drunk on festive spirit (or Mrs Patmore's mulled wine), then maybe things might have been a little interesting at Downton for the annual holiday special.
Instead, it was springtime at the Abbey (possibly even summer). The only people knocking back the drinks were the folks downstairs.
They -- would you believe -- had started to lose the run of themselves upstairs while Lord Grantham and his gang were busy visiting relatives in Scotland. Oh, and Mrs Patmore had a love interest.
Indeed, a lot can happen in two hours. And it did. But people will remember this one for all the wrong reasons.
Then again, when your back is against the wall, and the actor behind one of your most important characters announces he's to leave after three seasons, there's not a lot you can do that doesn't involve either a) killing the character off, or b) replacing the chap with a well-trained lookalike.
And that's exactly the problem that faced writer/creator Julian Fellowes when carving out the details of this fatigued and oddly humourless television 'event'.
What was Julian to do with Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) now that the actor wanted out? Matthew was the future of Downton -- would Julian really consider casting a replacement?
Of course not. So, he really did kill him off (spoiler alert, that one). Right at the end -- right after his wife, Mary, finally gave birth to their first child.
How did he die, you might ask? Well, there he was, driving in his car, the happiest lad on the planet, on his way home from the hospital having just caught a glimpse of his new family.
Seconds later, he was gone -- dead underneath his vehicle. Presumably, he had swerved off the road and into a ditch. It might have been his fault, or maybe even the passing driver's. But we didn't get to see it happen.
Now, I know what you're thinking. If it's Oscar-worthy death scenes I'm into, then why don't I just switch over to EastEnders and watch Derek gripping at his chest and collapsing in the middle of the Square as his family look on in horror?
Which is all well and good, but Downton's viewers deserved better. They deserved better than a silly story about a peculiar maid chasing Branson (Allen Leech).
Now "housebroken" and the agent of Lord Grantham's estate, the bloke almost fell victim to some rather strange bouts of flirtation with young Edna (she got sacked in the end).
And then we had Thomas (Robert James-Collier) rescuing Jimmy from the hands of some angry tug of war losers at a local fair (they're now friends as a result, so that story is neatly tied up ... for now).
For two hours, Fellowes foolishly cast his best players aside (the wonderful Maggie Smith included) to make room for a hollow run-through of everything that's come before (money problems in the family), things that are starting to take far too long to come out (why on Earth does Bates continue to make us nervous?) and things that we'll be seeing more of in the coming years (the rebellious Rose is on her way back to Downton).
A set-up, then, for the future. But isn't that what season debuts are for? Not lengthy Christmas specials. They're supposed to be fun and witty and full of drama.
Alas, it can't have been easy, writing off an integral character in a series when you really don't want to. But there are better ways to do it. Because we all know what will happen next.
Season four will take up a few months after the tragic accident -- we'll never get to see the initial aftermath of Matthew's death. And that, folks, is just cheating.
DOWNTON ABBEY HHIII