I haven’t been a fan of Glee for a while now, but nobody can deny that it broke new ground in television when it first came out, and many have tried to replicate its success to no avail. Almost all of Glee‘s charm lies within the actors and actresses who play the misfits of William McKinley High School. As talented as the cast is, and as ridiculous, frustrating and simplistic many of their characterizations have been, ‘Gleeks’ remain a dedicated (and rather rabid) fandom because the cast continues to genuinely love their fans back in their own humble, playful, charming way.
Hence the passing of Cory Monteith, who played one of the male leads Finn on the show (also often an inappropriately close friend to his teacher, leader of the misfits and one half of the end-game to end all end-games, the show’s central couple known to fans as ‘Finchel’), has not been easy on anyone, least of all his castmates, which include on- and off-screen girlfriend, Lea Michele. So central was he to the show, that Ryan Murphy considered shutting down the show entirely (and under different circumstances I would have agreed; this show should’ve ended about two seasons ago), but viewers and showrunners agreed that both the character and the actor who played him deserve a proper send-off, if just to give fans a chance at some closure.
Though it is a rare occurrence, television shows that have had to handle the death of a cast member while still on air have done so exceptionally well (unless one had the misfortune of dying while cast in Dallas or The Bold and the Beautiful). Episodes that deal directly with the passing of their characters, rather than bury it under flimsy dialogue, have been poignant, thoughtful, with a little bit of humour (though not always completely in line with the character) but with a loving nod to the wonderful people who played them.
What I’m most afraid of, in terms of the upcoming Glee tribute episode, is that the same (possibly bipolar with flashes of genius) mind that has envisioned and executed episodes like Shooting Star and Grilled Cheesus (both of which occupy the opposite ends of the Ryan Murphy Subtlety Spectrum) will be at the helm. He has considered having Finn Hudson die of a drug overdose, since Cory Monteith struggled with addiction issues all his life, but Cory the actor is not Finn the character. Such a death, though it would raise an important issue, would be so out of character for Finn that it would top (*SPOILER ALERT) Ricky Schwartz’s peanut allergy death in Awkward. Personally, I would prefer an exit storyline like George’s in Grey’s Anatomy. Dying whilst saving someone’s life – a hero’s death – would befit Finn’s muddled history with his deceased father, which resulted in his joining the army, and would neatly tie up the overall characterization of a man trying to find his path as a mentor and a leader.
I am however pretty content with the showrunners’ decision to not reveal the circumstances surrounding his death, but instead focus on celebrating the life he lived and allowing his friends and fans to grieve. Suddenly Susan’s tribute episode for David Strickland, too, chose not to reveal the cause of death, but instead brought into focus the life Todd had lived away from the eye, the one full of good deeds and compassion. They spotlit a life fully lived, finding contentment and allowing him to live on as a memory to the people whose lives he had touched.
Tribute episodes, much like any other funeral or memorial service, are a way for the people left behind to find some control over the emotions that the shocking and unexpected death evokes. The Suddenly Susan approach to celebrating the David Strickland they knew away from the public eye was an important, poignant way to honour his memory. However, NewsRadio chose a different approach. The anger over Phil Hartman’s death was palpable in the episode that dealt with the passing of Bill — almost everyone finds it hard to accept his death, even to the point of physical rage. Andy Dick’s character is so far in denial, he chooses to believe in fantasies thinking he’s still living off the grid. The character left behind letters for his colleagues to say goodbye, but that isn’t enough; at the end of the work day, they secretly take away something from his desk as memorabilia. It was a touching way to see him disappear from the show, but with each cast member trying to hold on to his presence however they could.
Some shows are not as successful at dealing with such a situation. Though 8 Simple Rules tried valiantly to deal with John Ritter’s death, the show never really recovered from his loss. The shock of his passing continued to affect storylines throughout the rest of the run of the show, mostly showing how his children felt completely adrift after his passing. The episode that focused on his death, a sudden collapse at the grocery store (much like his collapse on set) let the show’s characters speak of their last conversations with him, both things left unsaid and words that could not be taken back (Bridget’s last words to him were “I hate you.”). The show knew that the death of a family member can never truly stop being a part of the family’s life. Even if they do learn to move on, his absence never stops being noticeable.
I would love for Glee to find a way to incorporate all of these things into its tribute episode. It’s a tough task, but I know somewhere inside Ryan Murphy lies a genius who can make it happen. I don’t want to be flooded with songs that hammer at my conscience, I only want to see the original cast, his immediate circle, and none of the newbies. I want the cast members to have a voice in the writing of the episode. I don’t necessarily want just closure, I want to feel anger, a sense of betrayal at a talented person’s life cut short, and I want to feel just a little bit of despair too. I go back and forth on if I want to hear a replay of his first and last iconic track “Don’t Stop Believing”. Some days I think the show has overused already and nearly lost all poignancy, but then it feels like nothing else would feel as appropriate a tribute to Finn Hudson as that song. All I know for sure is that while making the episode can’t be easy, its going to be pretty damn hard to watch too. Who knows, maybe I’ll just skip the whole thing and let the cast of Sesame Street comfort Big Bird and I, explaining why someone can’t be around anymore.
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*What would you rather have Ryan Murphy handle more delicately, the death of Finn Hudson, or the Trayvon Martin-inspired episode? Yes he only has the capacity to execute one of them with the grace they deserve. Frankly, can we just not have the Trayvon Martin episode? Because that is a truly terrible idea in the hands of Ryan Murphy.
Shazia is part bionic, part crazy (parts not mutually exclusive), and would be happy conversing solely in TV quotes, forever hopeful she’ll be one-upped in her obscure TV references. She blogs here and microblogs here.