The eight episode third season of "Downton Abbey" finished airing the U.K. on November 4th and will premiere in the U.S. on PBS on January 6th. The just-announced fourth season, which will air in the U.K. next year with no U.S. date yet set, will also run eight episodes, and will in addition include an extended Christmas special. The opening and closing episodes will, according to ITV, be feature length as the show takes the Crawleys and their servants into the early 1920s.
Given the continued ratings success of "Downton Abbey" -- the third season was the highest so far for the series -- the announcement of a fourth season seems like a no-brainer. But the global attention the show has generated threatens to send cast-members off in search of higher-profile work elsewhere thanks to their new fame and a desire for something new. Dan Stevens, who plays Matthew Crawley, told the Wall Street Journal last month that "You do feel a certain obligation to shows that raise your profile like 'Downton' has. But there are definitely other exciting opportunities out there."
While there's no word yet about who will or will not be returning to the series for its fourth season, the arrival of new characters is being promised. The show's executive producer Gareth Neame said that "Julian knows that you want a core group of characters who almost become an extension of your family. But you also need new blood coming in to shake things up a bit." ITV's Director of Drama Laura Mackie pointed out the easy introduction of newbies like scullery maid Ivy (Cara Theobold) and footman Alfred (Matt Milne) in the third season as an example of how the show can continue even if certain original cast members depart: "That is one of the reasons why we always feel confident about the future of Downton Abbey."
ITV will be airing a two-hour 2012 "Downton Abbey" Christmas special on December 25th, one that finds Lord and Lady Grantham and family heading up to Scotland for a summer break and leaving most of their servants back at home.