How well "Glee" handles the Monteith's tribute episode will be crucial to whether it will succeed in his absence.
"We do develop serious relationships with the people we watch on a weekly basis," Thompson says. "It's kind of like how you would plan a memorial service. You have to walk very lightly."
However, even if the Monteith tribute is well received, that doesn't guarantee that the show will ultimately go on without him. When John Ritter died, "8 Simple Rules" presented his character's death in a particularly moving episode, with Katey Segal, who played his wife, memorably dropping the phone when she found out his character had succumbed to an off-screen heart attack. Considering that Ritter's starpower carried the show, and that its premise revolved around him as the skeptical father, it never found its footing without him.
However the death of a major character does not always mean the death of a show. Nancy Marchand, who played Tony Soprano's mother on "The Sopranos" died after the second season. She was by no means no minor character, often the source of Tony's issues, yet "The Sopanos" went on for four more critically acclaimed seasons. (The show was criticized for its efforts to use CGI to include her in some scenes of season 3.) However – unlike Monteith – Marchand's character was older and already written to have suffered from various ailments, so Livia Sopano's abrupt death wasn't entirely a jarring concept for viewers.
"Cheers" meanwhile dealt with the death of cast member Nicholas Colasanto by bringing on new character, played by a fresh actor, just like Colasanto. Colasanto's Coach and Woody Harrelson's Woody had similar personalities, and filled essentially the same role in the bar-room gang. Not only did "Cheers" go on for eight more seasons, it grew in popularity and Harrelson won an Emmy for the role. But it's hard to imagine "Glee" creating a Finn-like character to fill Monteith's absence, as the show was already having a difficult time shaping a narrative for Finn after his graduation.
Yet, even if "Glee" manages on without Finn, Monteith's death may continue to make its mark on the show's storyline. "The West Wing" writers admitted they changed the ending of the entire series due to the death of John Spencer, closing the show with the Jimmy Smit's Matt Santos winning the presidency – to whom Spencer's Leo McGarry was serving as a vice presidential candidate – rather than his opponent, Alan Alda's Arnold Vinick, as originally planned.
The show "will have to go through a ritual that is acceptable to their big fans and that's a tough thing to do," Thompson says. "And if you do it wrong, you can really poison the universe in that these characters exist in."