My relationship with Glee has been one characterized by scorching, red-hot hatred and unabashed, hysterical devotion. When television’s resident musical dramedy first premiered post-American Idol finale in the spring of 2009, I sat in my living room thinking to myself, “What an odd show.” I didn’t give Glee much thought again until later that year, when I returned home for my first extended vacation from my first year at college, and my hometown friends were suddenly enraptured by the camp, the comedy, and the music. For the following three weeks, we would take refuge from the blistery, cold New England weather in each other’s warm living rooms, watching, re-watching, and re-re-watching episodes from the first half of Glee’s first season. Being the passive-aggressive eighteen-year old that I was, I would sit in the corner, suggesting in a snarky tone that we do “something fun” instead.
Winter break ended, and I made the short trip back to my college campus, where I found some of my closest friends there also deeply devoted to Glee. It was inescapable. What I found here, though, away from the pressures of my past and the identity that I had created as a teenager, is that when I gave Glee a legitimate chance — when I sat down and truly digested the material — it was pure magic. The comedy, the emergence of little-known performers, the music, the performances — I had never seen television like this before. Not long after that, I was keeping up regularly with the show, re-watching episodes online, and downloading song after song. I was a gleek, and since my awakening, my devotion has only grown. Though many Glee fans have left the show since its purported glory days, I am more invested now than I ever have been. And that’s what makes Cory Monteith’s sudden death so difficult to deal with.
In a lot of ways, Glee is escapism. Once a week for an hour, I put my mind at rest and am transported to the halls of Mckinley High (or, more recently, the NYC apartment Rachel, Kurt, and Santana share) and can indulge in a place where spontaneous musical numbers occur and all the would-be gangly teens are impossibly good-looking twenty-somethings. At the drop of a hat, characters suddenly make a leap from their chairs in the high school choir room to an elaborately decorated set, complete with costume change, and prepared choreography. This is all grounded, though, in the emotional sucker punch that the show often packs — and when Glee brings its A-game, you can bet that sucker punch is going to hurt. For that hour, my happiness is tethered to the well-being of my favorite characters on television. When Puck rage-quit in the locker room and screamed about amounting to nothing, I felt it. When Kurt and Blaine broke up, I cried. When the New Directions won Nationals, I was overjoyed. When Rachel sang “Don’t Rain on My Parade” the adrenaline coursing through my veins made me feel like I could run a marathon. Cory Monteith’s sudden and shocking death changes that.
Retroactively, every moment of the show is stained with sadness and finality — the last time Rachel and Finn kiss, the last time Finn sings (side note: Monteith’s Glee run is bookended by performances of “Don’t Stop Believing”), the last time Finn stands in the choir room, the last time Finn hugs Kurt, the last time Finn seeks guidance from Mr. Shue, the last time Finn stands in a show choir circle with all of his friends, the last time Finn smiles. The death of Cory Monteith affects all of these moments and obliterates the mystery of a happy ending — there can’t be one. Monteith’s death is a booming reminder, loud and clear, that teenagers don’t spontaneously break into well-rehearsed song and dance. Costume changes don’t regularly occur. Not all dreams come true. Happy endings are never a guarantee. As someone raised on Disney movies, that’s a hard thing to digest. Monteith’s passing is a resounding reminder of much darker realities that exist in our plain world. And now, when we escape to Glee, those darker realities have encroached. I’m sure there’s some symbolism in there about growing up, but I can’t find the energy to put my finger on it.
For those who believe it to be disrespectful to mourn the loss of a character more evidently than the loss of an actor, let me say this: when a beloved actor suddenly dies it’s confusing and complicated. I know Finn Hudson — I’ve had consistent access to his thoughts, his words, and his actions for four years. I don’t know Cory Monteith beyond the few behind the scenes exclusives I’ve seen and the love I saw him share with his cast mates. This confusing Finn-or-Cory mess isn’t a bad thing, though. Finn was my access point to Cory, and allowed me to love Cory for portraying Finn in a way that was vulnerable and honorable and flawed and layered and relatable. It doesn’t prevent me from being sad about the death of a real-life live-and-in-color person. If anything, it perpetuates that sadness, and allows me to grieve the loss and celebrate the life’s work.