On the Death of Cory Monteith

For no reason, I decided to watch the 2011 Glee concert movie just three weeks ago. It was a very strange experience, for a couple of reasons. First, all background interviews were in character, so Lea Michele and Mark Salling were basically acting out how Rachel or Puck  might have reacted to being part of a big arena tour production. The segments with regular Glee fans straining to explain how the show had changed their lives – or at least their outlook on life – also didn’t quite work in the context of the film, giving more the feel of a season box-set featurette than a theatrical release. But what did work was the performances. If not particularly engrossing by themselves, they reminded me of what I had once liked about the show, back when it deserved that somewhat lazily attributed label of a “global phenomenon”, and music-based televised dramas felt fresh again.

Early in the second season, I wrote a glowing post about the show on this blog, praising it for its energy and willingness to be both didactic and boldly weird. In those days, I was prepared to see past the fact that I didn’t really care for either of the show’s central couples – Will and Emma, Finn and Rachel – since showrunner Ryan Murphy had yet to betray his blatant disregard for consistent character development or overarching storylines of any kind. At that point, characters being off-handedly tossed to the side for several episodes on end, or saddled with increasingly silly storylines of little or no consequence to the supposed super-structure of competitive singing/regular high school life, still seemed more like an endearing quirk than a deeply-rooted. Seeing the concert movie tapped into that dormant reserve of optimism regarding what Glee could become.

I guess it was those memories that triggered my surprisingly emotional reaction to Sunday’s report that Cory Monteith had died, at 31. Whether or not I liked what was done to his character over the years – while my fandom mutated into habit-obligated disinterest and finally to a combination of casual hate-watching and nostalgia for what once was (I randomly caught up with a few season four episodes just this past Saturday) – he always struck me as an integral part of what the show was trying to be. It was Montheith’s Finn Hudson who gave that seminal “We’re all losers” monologue in the pilot, and with his shy smile and generally affable demeanor in promotional appearances, Monteith came off as an encapsulation of the message of the show.

That includes his admirable openness about struggles with addiction, both before and since joining Glee. By putting a face on something often associated with shame and treated with silence, he did us all a favor, and by showing how it had affected him, I’m sure he did other celebrities a favor, too. He was absent for the last couple of episodes of Glee‘s fourth season, having entered rehab to seek treatment for his problems.

Back in 2009, I wrote a post defending the public outporing of grief upon the death of a celebrity. The concrete backdrop at the time was Michael Jackson, but I also found myself surprisingly moved by the expressions of loss and gratitude toward director John Hughes and author David Foster Wallace. My feelings about this ritual has not changed. Cynics may remain puzzled by how it is possible to feel so strongly about a person you’ve never met, and even someone whom you didn’t particular care about while they were still alive. But such is the nature of death. The shadow of finality inevitably colors our perception. And is it really wrong, even obnoxious, if people express their collective shock or sorrow over losing someone who represented something important to them? The venues for these expressions may have changed even just over the last few years, but that doesn’t necessarily make the feelings any less real.

Cory Monteith’s contribution to pop culture history was not as grand as that of a Michael Jackson or a John Hughes, but he deserves to be remembered. If Glee got somebody hooked on singing, or the theater or even just what TV could be, then maybe Cory Monteith’s passing is to them what Heath Ledger’s death was to me and many others in 2008, or what the death of River Phoenix meant to still others back in 1993. That has to count for something.

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