This year could have been a Christmas disaster if not for Hallmark Media's forward thinking.
They're known for bringing productions together in short order, contacting cast just before production begins on a movie.
So how did they know that this year, time was of the essence?
With the now-finished writers' strike and the ongoing actors' strike, we could have been very close to getting coal in our stockings.
But if you've been paying attention, you know that every year, Christmas productions have been getting better.
The stories are more heartfelt, carry a deeper meaning, and include all of the biggest stars, as well as introducing new stars who steal our hearts.
The most notable difference is on display with the Hallmark Channel opening Countdown to Christmas movie Checkin' It Twice, starring Hallmark hunk Kevin McGarry and the sensational Kim Matula, whose first movie, Ghosts of Christmas Always, aired in 2022.
So what's changed? The attention to detail. Filming when snow is on the ground instead of manufacturing a most beautiful and natural occurrence that makes Christmas Christmas (in the Northern Hemisphere, at least).
Checkin' It Twice takes full advantage of the season in every way possible.
Idaho Falls native Ashely lands in her hometown for her family Christmas after five years away at the very moment that journeyman hockey player Scott touches down after being traded to Idaho Falls' Flying Trout.
That's not where their similarities end.
Ashley and Scott are both dealing with relationship drama and career issues that are forcing them to look inside themselves. Each of them wonders if the person they've become is the person they're meant to be.
We all know the feeling.
You may have been in a relationship that feels like more work than pleasure. Every suggestion is turned around, and you find yourself doing things to please someone else instead of enjoying your time together more naturally.
And what's worse than feeling like you're working so hard at your job but you're standing in place or even going backward? Well, when someone pulls the rug out from under you. That's worse, but both are highly unpleasant.
It's also not easy to walk the fine line between pleasing yourself and not letting down your family.
They often have expectations of their own for you, whether it's by paying for your school and urging you to chase your dreams or maybe joining the family business, even if it's not you don't share the same dreams.
Ashley and Scott bump into each other in the midst of much turmoil, but thankfully, none of it comes from holiday blues.
Ashley's family is waiting to embrace her in a warm hug, and she cannot wait to feel their love surround her again.
Scott doesn't care either way. His father was an NHL player, always on the road. Holidays hold very little meaning for him, and he'd just as much prefer to get more time on the ice, upping his game for his own chance at NHL dreams.
In Idaho Falls, though, hockey is life. Hey, this isn't Ted Lasso. Soccer isn't life. Hockey is life!
The citizens of Idaho Falls hold their team in high regard, and the team holds them in the same. As Christmas festivities begin, you can find all of the players lending a hand, which makes the events very charming and a lot of fun.
I'm not going to give away story details, but I will tell you that Checkin' It Twice has some of the best Christmas activities and gatherings.
Hockey players pour hot cider at the Cider Social (how yummy does that sound?), which gives McGarry an opportunity to look absolutely adorable in a Santa hat, using his winning smile to charm children and adults alike.
There is the cutest game of MerryFish (I think I got that right), where people "fish" for fish ornaments nestled among more traditional Christmas tree ornaments. Frankly, it looks like a lot more fun than it has the right to be!
Hallmark movies have always had incredible set designs, but Checkin' It Twice runs over to the entire town. Sometimes, the decor is so much that it overpowers the scenes amidst it, but not here.
The set design offers a traditional, family aura that makes it feel like you have just gone home again. It's wonderful.
All of this says very little about the story or the performances.
Kim Matula and Kevin McGarry make a terrific on-screen couple, as both beautifully portray warm and genuine characters.
If you read my work often, you know that I have been Team Lucas on When Calls the Heart. Do not for a second think that I do not have an appreciation for McGarry because of it.
He has a remarkable screen presence, and funnily enough, there are things about Scott that had me imagining McGarry if he had played Lucas. He would have been just as good as if slightly different than Chris McNally as Lucas.
If Elizabeth Thornton met Scott, she would toss both Nathan and Lucas to the curb and set her heart on the hockey player. McGarry plays him to the hilt. And darn it, there is just something so attractive about actors playing sports while acting!
McGarry is a natural on the ice, giving Scott layers of authenticity only someone with his skills could do.
We've seen many actors make a big splash on Hallmark, never to return. Matula is different. Ghosts of Christmas Always was so special with perfect dashes of faith, mysticism, and the supernatural.
None of that is present in Checkin' It Twice, but Matula doesn't need any of that to bring home her performance as Ashley. She gives a very convincing portrait of a young woman struggling to follow her heart when her mind is at odds with those desires.
The very best part of Checkin' It Twice comes from their performances at the direction of Kevin Fair.
By coincidence, Fair directed Chris McNally in the recent Hallmark Fall into Love movie, 3 Bed, 2 Bath, 1 Ghost, and he also directed another well-received hockey movie, Taking a Shot at Love, starring Alex PenaVega and Luke Macfarlane.
There is another similarity between Checkin' It Twice and Taking a Shot at Love, which is spoiled in the logline: both hockey fellas find themselves renting a private cottage behind the leading lady's family home.
In this case, it's discovered via a very cute scene, and I don't think the magic of the moment will be ruined by knowing what you know!
But let's get back to the best part of the movie from a character and performance perspective and the reason you'll fall in love with Checkin' It Twice.
Matula and McGarry play characters who find a lot about their current lots in life challenging, but not each other. So many times, characters work so hard pushing each other away that you barely have time to see them connect.
Checkin' It Twice is different. Sparks fly, and they recognize them and stoke the fire without being either clueless or obvious.
It's such a welcome respite from characters turning their heads in opposite directions out of fear of what may come. Scott and Ashley are adults who know the best things can be too fleeting, and they want a future in which they last.
Really, isn't that what Hallmark has done for us with Countdown to Christmas and Miracles of Christmas? They've taken the joy of Christmas and extended it beyond our wildest dreams.
And that's why Checkin' It Twice is the perfect season opener. You can catch it yourself on Friday, October 20 at 8/7c, only on Hallmark Channel!
Carissa Pavlica is the managing editor and a staff writer and critic for TV Fanatic. She's a member of the Critic's Choice Association, enjoys mentoring writers, conversing with cats, and passionately discussing the nuances of television and film with anyone who will listen. Follow her on X and email her here at TV Fanatic.