Since the tragic death of 31-year-old actor Cory Monteith of a drug overdose in July, the months leading up to the return of his show "Glee," which premieres its fifth season Thursday, have been filled with questions of how the series will deal with his passing.
This sad situation is certainly not a new one. Countless television shows, including beloved series like "Cheers," "The Sopranos" and "The West Wing," have had actors die unexpectedly mid-run. However, each occasion has presented its own particular set of challenges and circumstance, and viewers – loyal fans and intrigued outsiders, alike – will be tuning into Fox in the coming weeks to see how "Glee" will deal with theirs.
"Glee" benefits from the fact it's an ensemble cast. Its entire show does not turn on Monteith's character Finn, making it unlike "Chico and the Man," which was cancelled a season after its star Freddie Prinze, who played the titular Chico, committed suicide. However, "Glee" also made Monteith a star, and, in turn, his fanbase helped launch a franchise that included iTunes hits and concert tours. As Syracuse University television and pop culture professor Robert Thompson points out, "The cast has actor names and they have character names, but with the 'Glee' concerts they're really kind of blended together."
Many of Finn's initial McKinley classmates were written out of the show upon graduation, but Montheith's character was deemed too important to leave the main cast, and lingered on without much of a narrative arc. Even without Monteith's death "Glee" was struggling with growing pains of its own.
Finn reportedly was slated to go to college to become a teacher himself in the new season before Monteith's death. Since, showrunner Ryan Murphy has confirmed that Monteith's character will die, a special tribute episode will acknowledge his death.
It's almost a given in recent years that a show facing the loss of an actor will write a death for his or her character, but cheesier conceits have been attempted before. "Chico and the Man" had Chico running away to Mexico rather than dying. While this and other comedies may have feared the dark shadow a death would cast on its jovial tone, "Glee" – for all its singing and dancing – hasn't shied away from darker subject matter, with episodes about bullying, teen pregnancy and even gun violence.
The opportunity presented itself for "Glee" to use the circumstances of Monteith's death – reportedly a lethal mix of heroin and alcohol– to teach a similar lesson about drug abuse. Monteith had spoken publicly about his struggles with addiction and had ended a stint in rehab shortly before his overdose. However, Murphy has also said that after much deliberation the show had opted to leave the cause of Finn's parallel death ambiguous.
"Glee" producers are also choosing not to address the issue immediately in the season, reportedly saving the tribute for its third episode. Those tuning in Thursday may find it strange to watch the gang sing and dance to Beatles songs as part of a two-episode "Beatlemania" special, that has also been the focus of all the "Glee" pre-season promotion. But the choice is not without precedent. "Sesame Street" waited nearly a year to address the passing of Will Lee, who played Mr. Hooper, with an episode that has been highly praised for how it presented death to its child audience.
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."