In the face of Cory Monteith’s tragic death Saturday, at age 31, from as-yet-unknown causes, I find myself revisiting my first experience with Glee. I read a lot about the show during its first 13 episode run but never tuned in, despite it seeming right up my alley (as a big fan of musicals). I think I was just turned off by the excessive praise it was getting, as I tend to be wary of anything that seems to inspire unanimous opinions. But I was curious so I checked out the pilot episode online during the show’s midseason hiatus and I was sold. I ran out and bought the first half of season one on DVD, and my wife and I started to watch it over the course of a couple of days. One night, 2 episodes before the midseason finale, we decided to head to bed around midnight. But we both lay there for a while, unable to sleep, until we decided we just had to finish the show. We returned to the living room and watched the rest of the episodes, even if it meant we were up until 2am or later. That’s the sort of feeling that Glee inspires in people.
Cory Monteith was of course a big part of that. As one of the show’s original core of characters, he’ll always be linked to it. But as I’ve been thinking about him and his character, Finn Hudson, I’m reminded of how important he was to the show, and mostly in ways that were never entirely obvious. Finn was never anyone’s favorite character, not the best singer, and a pretty horrible dancer. He was big, goofy, naive, and flawed, but he was crucial to the fabric of the show through three seasons. It’d be easy to simply attribute that to the writer’s plotting, but that would be unfair to Cory’s performance and abilities.
So many of my favorite moments of the show involve Finn, whether story related or performance related. Cory’s voice was perfectly suited to the sort of classic rock ballads that the music department would give him, whether the Zombies’ “She’s Not There”, Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days” or, of course, Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’”. He also showed a gift for musical performance, giving depth and feeling to numbers like The Pretenders’ “I’ll Stand By You” and R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion”. But for me, the bigger moments were the ones that weren’t sung.
Finn was always a bit of a lost puppy, always torn between the various choices presented by life. Cory’s performance was painfully earnest and honest, as though we were watching him instead of the character he played. He was important in every moment that I always think of when it comes to Glee, even if the focus was never on him. The finale of the “Sectionals” episode of season 1, with the group singing “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”, featured Finn but it wasn’t about him. However, Finn putting away his personal issues in order to help the group, as a leader, is what gives the numbers their dramatic weight. Hell, even in the pilot episode Finn’s conscience overcoming his need to fit in with the football players is what leads to the dramatic final performance of “Don’t Stop Believin’”.
But to really get a sense of Cory’s acting ability, you have to look to the “Theatricality” episode from season one. In it, Finn’s mother has moved in with Kurt’s father, and Finn and Kurt are sharing a basement room, which Kurt has lovingly decorated, all while Kurt is crushing on Finn and trying to seduce him. Finn is angry over being kicked out of his house and forced to share a room with someone else, while also struggling to accept his gay, future step-brother after spending his entire life until the beginning of the show as a bullying jock in a culture with a negative opinion of gay people. So in his rage he lashes out at Kurt and their shared room, using the word “fag” to describe it, when Kurt’s dad walks in saying, “Hey! What did you just call him?” Finn reacts with defiance, shame, and horror at the realization of what he was saying. The scene is one of the most memorable in the show’s history, and Mike O’Malley got lots of praise for his performance in it as Kurt’s dad, but Cory was largely ignored. It’s Cory’s performance, however, that sells the scene. He makes Finn totally believable as a kid whose conscience and heart are telling him one thing and the habits of his life are telling him another. The shock on his face is painful to watch, as you can imagine his heartbreak at what he’s done. It all makes his appearance at the end of the episode in a Lady Gaga-inspired outfit to support Kurt all the more emotional.
Cory’s gift as an actor was in letting the other actors around him shine (much like Finn’s gift in the show). Nowhere was this more clear than in his scenes with Lea Michele. Finn and Rachel balanced each other, and while their relationship had its ups and downs, it was clear that “Finchel” was the endgame for the characters. What makes Cory’s death more tragic is that he and Lea Michele were dating, and now not only will she have to deal with his death in real life, but she will have to deal with it onscreen as well.
It’s too early to do much speculating about how Glee will handle Cory’s death, but it’s a question that will have to be answered soon, as filming for season 5 is due to start soon. I doubt they’ll recast the character, and something like “Finn is off somewhere” will feel cheap, but they’ll need to handle Cory’s death in a way that’s tactful and allows both the characters, the actors and crew and the audience to move on. I would hope that they will steer clear of mirroring the real-world circumstance of Cory’s death, which are still being determined.
Cory Monteith will be known for this one role he played, and it’s a shame that he won’t be able to test himself with other roles in the future. He had a natural quality to his acting that lent itself perfectly to the role which will now define his life. It’s easy to imagine the similarities between the character and the performer, as Cory struggled with the choices in his life as a teenager. I don’t know if his death was related to the drug problems he had in his younger days, and that he was in rehab for just a few months ago. No answer will make the situation less or more tragic, but the thought that someone with his talent, and as kind as his co-stars described him to be, couldn’t find his way in the world is truly sad. He was an integral part of a unique show, and played his part with warmth and truth, which is all we could ask of anyone.