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Recently I’ve been catching up on Downton Abbey with my sister, who watches it (I DON’T WATCH IT REGULARLY I SWEAR I DON’T oh there’s no point pretending that’s true I’m writing a blog post about it). I missed the entire second series, but have seen some of the third and just now, the Christmas special, in which **MASSIVE SPOILER ALERT** Matthew Crawley is killed when his car hits a lorry. (You know, joy to the world in the festive season and all that.) This also reminded me of Doctor Who,  where two popular companions, Amy and Rory Pond, were written out, leaving the Doctor alone. This thinking has led me to come to the discussion that I will henceforward term “The writer question”, but is more significantly a TV issue. It goes like such:

TV shows become successful most often if they have good, well-written and well-acted characters. If a TV show does become successful, it is likely that the actors playing these characters will become in demand for other jobs. Not content to stick with a show if the lights of say, Hollywood, or bigger shows, come calling, and not prepared to bet that they will not be stuck playing the same sort of role forever, until the show’s quality fails and it is cancelled (which is far more likely than the show stopping at a high point), often actors leave shows (see Steve Carell in the Office USA). This point – when an actor bails – is what interests me most.

Firstly, it might appear quite rude on the part of the actor – the writer, who has created the character that helped the actor’s stock go up, now has to find a way to remove the character without damaging the TV show, whilst the actor goes on to other things. But I don’t think this is a problem. Actors don’t play roles forever. I just have always found the way writers adapt to losing actors to be a sure sign of the quality of the show.

And there are numerous ways it can be done. Take Doctor Who for example. The show is famous for replacing its LEAD character (the Doctor) every few series when the actor leaves – the writers invented “regeneration” to deal with it. The companions also chop and change frequently, but with the show’s concept (eternal travelling round space) it is perhaps understandable the characters often give up and go home – though actually, most don’t. They want to carry on but get killed or stuck or removed from the universe. Answer to all the writer’s problems: SCI FI. (In Amy and Rory’s departure, it felt rushed and badly planned, not even warranting a two-part episode or a series finale, but that’s beside the point).

How to adapt though, on Downton Abbey? The show is an ensemble drama, but Lady Sybil and Matthew Crawley are both prominent and significant characters, especially Matthew. When both actors said they wanted to leave, what could be done? Here are some suggestions that Lord Fellowes could have taken up:

  • Do nothing, and replace them in Season 4 with the most similar looking actors they could find, keep blurring when focusing on them, or showing them from behind, and have no one mention it.
  • Do nothing, and replace them in Season 4 with just completely different looking actors (fat black woman, short Chinese boy) and draw hilarious attention to it.
  • Do nothing, and in Season 4 simply mention something about the plague or going off to war. Never speak of them again. Then introduce very similar characters (“Hi I’m… Michael Cowley… and I am YOUR DASHING NEW LOVE INTEREST).
  • Send Matthew off to a job in, I don’t know, India. And keep Sybil in Ireland. Permanently.
  • Have them die off… WAIT, they are both strong healthy young people! They don’t die off spontaneously within months of each other – unless… no… hang about! YES! PERIOD DRAMA CHILDBIRTH TRAGEDY! That takes care of Sybil… but what of Matthew? TRAGIC HUNTING ACCIDENT? No, that would be tasteless and vulgar. CAR CRASH WHILST DRIVING BACK FROM NEW MOTHER AND WIFE IN HOSPITAL! Perfect.
  • Plane crash.
  • In the closing moments of Season 3, reveal that they have been wearing masks all along, and actually look like *new actors*.
  • Do nothing, and replace them in Season 4 with cardboard cutouts. Or just have a throwaway line “WOW THAT SURGERY WAS GREAT YOU LOOK BRAND NEW!”
  • Announce during the series that you simply must send the characters off to India or Ireland, or anywhere  and it is totally unavoidable. Then, with a hearty, tearful farewell in the Christmas special, announce that the ship sank at the beginning of Season 4. THERE. THAT WASN’T SO HARD, WAS IT LORD FELLOWES? THAT DIDN’T RUIN CHRISTMAS DID IT LORD FELLOWES? NO. SUPER.

Or: regenerate them. They’ve been on Gallifrey the whole time. I SMELL CROSSOVER! 😀

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