Right up front, let me just say this: Cory Monteith’s death two weeks ago was nothing short of tragic. The fatal mix of heroin and alcohol that took the 31-year-old Glee star’s life was made all the more poignant because he’d been battling addiction for years and was once again desperately trying to get clean. At the behest of executive producer Ryan Murphy and girlfriend/co-star Lea Michele, he sat out the last two episodes of this past season.
But the bitter irony is, Monteith’s death actually has the potential to breathe new life into Glee. While the show still had its legions of fans, everything in the past two seasons was dropping away: the ratings, the Emmy nominations, its plum Tuesday night spot and the attention from the recappers and Twitterati, who turned their attention away from Glee, and toward shows like Scandal.
Admittedly, I stopped watching, too. I grew tired of the ridiculous character shifts, the sacrifice of plot in favor of song and dance, the ever-changing tone, and the misuse of great actors like Jane Lynch. But, when the new season premieres on September 26, I sure as hell am going to be tuning in, and I confess, it’ll be out of morbid curiosity: How are the writers going to handle the death of Monteith and his character, Finn Hudson, not just at the beginning of the season, but for the rest of the series's run?
The coverage of Monteith's death happened to coincide with the verdict in the George Zimmerman case, so understandably it didn’t command as much as attention as it might have. As a result, the media mostly failed to articulate that Monteith wasn't just “one of the kids” on the show, like Kevin McHale or Naya Rivera. Despite the fact that his character graduated from McKinley High and is now co-leading the glee club with Will Schuester (Matthew Morrison), Monteith was essentially the co-lead of Glee, along with Morrison, Michele, and Chris Colfer. His story, and especially Finn's on-and-off romance with Michele’s character, Rachel Berry, was one of the through-lines that Murphy was likely going to return to for the series’ duration, leading to the inevitable happy ending of Finn and Rachel getting married.
Now that's never going to happen. And the real-life implications of Finn's death go beyond the cast dealing with grief over Monteith’s passing. Michele will now have to live her boyfriend’s death all over again, and not only in the tribute episode; Rachel and Finn will likely be referenced from time to time as long as the show stays on the air. As Murphy told E! Online, he would have been okay ending it right there if Michele wasn’t comfortable going on with the show. To her credit, she wanted the close-knit cast to mourn Monteith in what's become a home for them, so they show will go on. They’re going to shoot the already-written first two episodes of season five, albeit with some modifications, do a Monteith tribute episode, then take a break to reassess.
Murphy isn't celebrated for his subtlety when it comes to incorporating real-life events into his shows — recall last season’s “school shooter” episode or the entire season of the now-cancelled The New Normal. So it’ll be interesting to see if he drifts into the maudlin or maintains the sense of humor that the show has established over its four seasons.
This isn’t the first time a major character on a series has had passed away, so Murphy has examples on which to draw — though not every show has handled it with ease and grace. Arguably, the most notably awkward examples include Cheers, an iconic, deeply influential series. And yet, the writers never addressed why Coach, played by Nicholas Colasanto, looked drawn and frail during the show’s third season, before being sidelined with a heart condition. When he passed away in February, 1985, the writers decided to keep Coach off screen for the final set of episodes that season. The following season, we learn that Coach had passed away, right before Woody Boyd (Woody Harrelson) comes in to apply for the vacant bartender’s job. There was a tribute, but not much more.
Another strange instance was on NewsRadio, but perhaps it was understandable because the death of the show’s star was so shocking: Phil Hartman was shot and killed by his wife between seasons four and five. The sly NBC comedy struggled to stay afloat. After a warm tribute to Hartman and his character Bill McNeal, who was said to have a heart attack, the sitcom cast Hartman’s former SNL co-star Jon Lovitz in a new role. But the chemistry was off and the show, already teetering on the edge of cancellation for years, was finally given the axe by NBC.
And then there was 8 Simple Rules, a vehicle for John Ritter, who died after the first three episodes into the second season. The sitcom took some time off then had a moving if awkward tribute to Ritter and his character. The rest of that season had Katey Sagal, who played Ritter’s wife, struggling to keep things together as a mourning single mother. The subsequent episodes that season were an odd mix, the grief over the loss mixing awkwardly with TGIF-ish “jokes” that had been the show’s original calling card. It was surprising that the series made it to a third season — this one, casting James Garner and David Spade — and it was less maudlin, but it certainly wasn’t funnier.
At least the writers at the new Dallas were prepared: They anticipated the day when they would have to kill off J.R. Ewing, because Larry Hagman was in the midst of cancer treatments. And since the show was a drama, it could pull off a heartfelt good-bye without much issue.
But in comedy, mixing real-life sadness with the fictional hilarity is something that’s not in most writers' toolboxes. And it shows. But, it also lends itself to a fascinating study of how a fictional world changes when real life intrudes. If Ryan Murphy sticks to what he knows, then the next season of Glee is going to be more of a mess than it was when it started. But at least it’ll be a mess that's worth watching.
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