July 19--Actor Cory Monteith's death at age 31 is surely a painful loss for his girlfriend and co-star Lea Michele, his family, his friends and the fanatical legion of singing Gleeks. I've never been a fan of the show, so I'm not going to pretend to know how devastated they all feel. But I am interested to see how the sitcom moves on without its male star.
While the fallout for Monteith's former show feels paltry compared to the grief his loved ones are surely feeling, I can guarantee that FOX and the "Glee" writers already have addressed the fact that they have to completely rebuild the show's fifth season and its future beyond that. Deadline reported earlier this week that the first two episodes of the season already had been written and shooting was scheduled to begin next month.
A number of TV shows have had to deal with an actor's death in the middle of their runs. Last year, TNT's new version of "Dallas" was forced to write the death of oil baron J.R. Ewing into the series when actor Larry Hagman passed away at the age of 81.
Sadly, it's a pretty standard practice in the TV business. I mean, seriously, what else can the writers do? When John Spencer died of a heart attack in 2005, his character, White House chief of staff Leo McGarry, met the same fate on "The West Wing." When John Ritter died in 2003, "8 Simple Rules" took a two-month break before returning with an episode that began with Ritter's character falling victim to an off-screen heart attack. When "Suddenly Susan" actor David Strickland committed suicide in 1999, they did a season finale called "Todd Dies" that paid tribute to his character.
One that still sticks out in my memory is the episode of "NewsRadio" called "Bill Moves On." It was the fifth season debut and the first episode shot after star Phil Hartman was shot and killed by his wife. It was subtly revealed in the episode that Hartman's character had died of a heart attack, and I thought the cast and crew handled it well (even though reports indicated that the cast was crying and distraught throughout filming). Viewers caught up with the cast after the funeral. There was no shocking revelation or passing around of the bad news. Every character already had begun grieving -- like most Hartman fans -- and that made it OK to deliver some greatly funny and touchingly clever moments throughout the episode.
Unfortunately, the fifth season was the last for "NewsRadio." And if you take a look at the others previously mentioned, they didn't carry on much longer either. "The West Wing" wrapped up in 2006. "Suddenly Susan" only made it one more season after Strickland's passing. And "8 Simple Rules" was mercifully canceled in 2005 (it had slipped to 50th in the ratings in 2004, but ABC knew it would be seen as heartless to pull the plug on the once-fledgling show just a year after Ritter's death).
In fact, the only hit TV show I can remember thriving after the death of a major cast member was when "Cheers" swapped Coach (actor Nicholas Colastano died after the third season) for Woody. But let's be honest -- Coach was not the show's biggest strength, and we all know now how talented and funny Woody Harrelson ended up being.
Long story short, the odds don't look good for the sustained success of "Glee." Making matters worse is the fact that scripts already have been written and production was about to begin. The makers of "Glee" are looking at a daunting time crunch, making their handling of the young actor's death on the show a pressing matter.
Reportedly, the first two episodes of the fifth season heavily featured Finn, explaining his absence from the end of the show's fourth season. You see, toward the end of production last year, Monteith had entered rehab for substance addiction and missed the show's final few episodes. His storyline was re-written, and the last time people had seen Finn, he had enrolled in college to become a teacher.
Perhaps, they'll write him out of the show with this -- I hate to say convenient, but convenient -- endpoint. After all, the central focus of "Glee" is a high school singing group and the craziness around it. It would be easy enough to say that he's simply away at school, earning his degree and soaking up the college life. But that would hardly be satisfying to the loyal fans of the show and Monteith's character, who likely would want a more emotional conclusion to the character's story arc (like an entire musical tribute to Finn).
Although ratings for "Glee" have been slipping in recent seasons, it has been a huge hit for FOX and was just renewed for two more seasons. But, trust me, how they handle these first few episodes of 2013 will decide if "Glee" makes it past 2015.
Shea Conner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @stjoelivedotcom.
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