Actor Cory Monteith's tragic death at age 31 is a gutting loss for countless reasons. And while the fallout for his show Glee is practically inconsequential compared with the pain his family and friends now face, it's inevitable that Fox's writers must at some point address the dilemma.
Deadline reports that the first two episodes of Season 5 have already been written, and shooting was set to begin as early as next month. A number of TV series have had to deal with an actor’s death in the midst of a run before—just this past year, TNT’s Dallas reboot was forced to write the death of Larry Hagman into the show. But with scripts already written and production about to begin, Glee is facing an unenviable time crunch, making the question of how Monteith’s death will affect the show an especially pressing one.
It is, as tragic as seems, the typical response for TV series to kill off the character when an actor dies in the middle of a show’s run. When John Spencer died of a heart attack in 2005, his character, Leo McGarry, met the same fate on seventh season of The West Wing. When John Ritter died in September 2003, 8 Simple Rules took a two-month hiatus before returning with an episode that began with Ritter’s character succumbing to an off-screen heart attack. When Suddenly Susan actor David Strickland killed himself in 1999, the character died on the show, too.
The Sopranos and the Dallas reboot both turned to computer trickery to create a few final scenes with its departed actors—Nancy Marchand in The Sopranos and Hagman in Dallas—before having the characters die on the show, too.
Several shows had the benefit, if you could call it that, of the tragedy occurring in the off season and therefore addressed the actors’ deaths in season premieres. Season 4 of Cheers began by establishing the death of Nicholas Colasanto’s Coach and introduced Woody Harrelson’s Woody as a new cast member. NewsRadio star Phil Hartman was shot and killed by his wife after production on the show’s fourth season had wrapped, and Season 5 began with the reveal that his character had died of a heart attack.
While Glee is technically in the off season, it is not exactly in the same boat as those series, as Season 5’s first two episodes have already been written and reportedly heavily feature Finn, explaining his absence from the end of Glee’s fourth season. Toward the tail end of production on the season, Monteith entered rehab for substance addiction, causing him to miss the show’s final few episodes. His storyline was rewritten, and the last we see of Finn, he’s just enrolled in college to become a teacher.
It’s unclear what writers had planned for Finn when the show came back, but Monteith was set to return as a series regular, so presumably he would not be sequestered off at a university. Writers are presumably scrambling to rework the scripts following Monteith’s death and are therefore facing a creative Catch-22. As Vulture’s Lauren Hoffman writes, “If the season begins with Finn glibly written out (“Oh, he moved to L.A. with Mercedes!”), it will be criticized for insensitivity; if Finn’s storyline mirrors Monteith’s passing more closely, it will be criticized for exploitation.”
Compounding the creative conundrum is the fact, at least in the past season, writers have already seemed unsure of what to do with Monteith’s character.
When Glee rebooted for its fourth season, splitting the narrative between New York City and Lima, Ohio, it became fairly obvious what to do with most of the show’s characters. The members of New Directions still in high school would lead the Ohio-based storylines. Rachel (Lea Michele) and Kurt (Chris Colfer) would head to the big city for college and to pursue careers in the arts. The other New Directions graduates would essentially be written off the show, returning for guest episodes when it made sense ... at least in the realm of the Glee-verse.
But writers didn’t seem to know what to do with Finn, as he wasn’t a natural fit in either of those first two categories and, as Glee’s leading male character over the show’s first three seasons, was too valuable to relegate to recurring status with the other graduates. The result was that, for the majority of the fourth season, he was just kind of there. He meandered around McKinley until he was hired as a long-term substitute teacher for Matthew Morrison’s Will Schuester, a move that stretched plausibility to its thinnest. He loafed around New York for a while as a few new twists were added to Finn and Rachel’s romantic arc, but Rachel’s frustrations with Finn’s during that time echoed the viewers’: You’re not doing anything! You’re just hanging around! What’s your purpose in life?
Now that a “purpose” had haphazardly been assigned to Finn—pursuing a college education to become a teacher—it would seem easy enough to write him off the show that way. The character is simply away at school. But that would hardly be satisfying to fans of show and of Monteith’s, who likely wish to see a more emotional conclusion to the character’s arc.
Glee has never shied away from the fact that there are harsh truths in life that we all must deal with, whether it’s bullying or broken dreams or heartbreak. It would be hard to imagine, then, that the show would balk at directly addressing Monteith’s death. Finn will likely die. There will be tributes in song. It will likely be an incredibly emotional episode and send shock waves through the characters that will reverberate for the next few seasons. And as sad as it will be to watch and as devastating a reminder as it will be of what happened to Monteith, the show shouldn’t proceed in any other way.