“Glee” has always prided itself on keeping it real, with “ripped from the headlines” plots such as school shootings and transgender acceptance. But this past weekend’s death of the show’s star Cory Monteith is one story that is all too real for everyone.
I’m a little ashamed to admit that after hearing the news, it took me less than a minute to start wondering about its impact on the show. I know almost nothing about Cory Monteith, but I sure felt like I knew his character, Finn Hudson, the quarterback-turned-glee-club-enthusiast who was at the emotional core of the show.
From the beginning, Finn was one of the most complicated characters on “Glee.” A lower-middle-class son of a dead soldier raised by a single mom, he was also a handsome star athlete and one of the most popular kids in the school. In the show’s origin story, his decision to join the glee club paved the way for other football players and cheerleaders to join, giving the club the critical mass it needed.
Finn was the character who stood in for the audience as the show explored its sexual themes. Although solidly straight himself, he was not a lothario like his buddy Puck; in fact, he was so sexually naïve that he originally thought he had impregnated his girlfriend without having had sex with her. More to the point, though, he acted as the show’s moral force on homosexuality, openly uncomfortable about it at first, but gradually accepting it as he came to understand Kurt, his openly gay Glee club teammate and eventual stepbrother.
As the show evolved, Finn stood in for teenagers everywhere who have made a difficult transition from high school to an uncertain adult world. Once a high school superstar, Finn came to feel like a loser after he got drummed out of the army, broke up with his one-time fiancée Rachel, and struggled to find a role for himself. By the end of season four, he was co-coach of his old glee club at McKinley High and seemed on the verge of getting back together with Rachel.
Of course, “Glee” will survive without Monteith. The series has multiple stars, none of whom appear in every episode. Finn himself didn’t show up in the first several episodes of season four and he was missing at the end of the season as well. But even though there are plenty of other characters and storylines to highlight, his absence will be deeply felt.
As the straightest and handsomest member of the cast, he was beloved by the young women who make up the core of the show’s audience. There’s no one to fill that role. Also, at a time when scripted television is focused on the highly educated upper middle class, Finn Hudson was one of the few reminders that the American economy is not built for lower-middle-class guys who don’t go to college.
Perhaps more important, though, the real-life death of Cory Monteith punctures the central myth of the show that if you work hard enough, you can achieve your dreams. The “Glee” characters never shut up about their dreams – and, despite multiple setbacks, always seemed to be moving in the right direction.
I’ve always found “Glee” to be extremely frustrating. It’s original, provocative, sometimes funny and sometimes deeply exhilarating. Yet it’s also didactic, repetitive, cloying, and frequently absurd. There seem to be no permanent consequences on the show. Characters make and unmake decisions, make heartfelt declarations and then change their minds to no ill effect. This is not a show with any apparent narrative arc, but instead one that seems to be made up week by week. If a storyline contradicts a plot point from several weeks ago, who cares?
But there’s no undoing Cory Monteith’s death. Finn Hudson is not coming back, and he will never achieve his dreams. Presumably the character will die on the show and the rest of the cast will get to show off their acting chops as they grieve his loss. The show will go on — but it will be sadder, less consequence-free.
It’s fitting that Cory Monteith’s last appearance on “Glee” was the emotional highpoint of season four. His one-time girlfriend Rachel is auditioning for the lead in “Funny Girl.” She is scared, intimidated and alone on stage as she appears before the producers. Then she starts to sing the song that personified the show in its first season: “Don’t Stop Believin.” As she gains strength and confidence, her old friends from the high school glee club, including Finn, materialize to back her up. They are not there in reality, of course. They are with her in spirit, and knowing they have her back, Rachel gives a bravura performance.
Finn is not the focus of the scene, but he’s crucial to its emotional impact, because in the end, the show is about friendships that transcend whatever your relationships might be at that moment in time. The idea that your friends will always be with you might be the biggest dream on the show — but there was no better friend than Finn Hudson, and the show will be weaker without him.