Cory Monteith, who played high-school-quarterback-turned-singer Finn Hudson in Fox’s Glee, has died, way too young, at age 31. Monteith was found dead in a Vancouver hotel room; at this writing, investigators have not determined the cause of death. And in a way, I’m glad that I’m writing this before we know the cause—before the focus turns to why and how Monteith died, rather who and what we lost.
Monteith will leave a big hole in Glee, and not just because he had such a large role in its sprawling ensemble cast. As Monteith played him, Finn was also often the heart and emotional anchor of a show that could take dizzying plot twists and roller coaster shifts in tone. At its best, however zany Glee could become, it was rooted in something real: the struggles of small-town kids to become better than they’ve been led to expect, and their fear that their reality may not match their dreams.
Finn, the son of a single mom and a dad killed in Iraq, encapsulated this; the only thing he worried about more than his teammates’ ridicule for joining glee club was the potential of ending up a “Lima loser” who peaked in high school. That’s part of what made the pilot’s climactic duet, “Don’t Stop Believin'”–which Monteith performed with costar Lea Michele, who he would eventually date in real-life—such a fitting emotional anthem for Glee: the show, and Monteith, sold both the optimism and the suggestion that merely believin’ would not always be enough.
Monteith was 31 when he died, and Glee has aired for four seasons, which means that he was in the long tradition of stars of high-school dramas who played characters far younger than themselves. But one thing I always admired in Monteith’s performance was that, even if he looked older than a teenager, he was able to capture Finn’s decent, unformed, half-boy-half-man naiveté. His Finn began as a boy who found himself operating the controls of a grown-up body. (Monteith, who did a stint in rehab for substance abuse this year, said himself that he had his own “out of control” adolescence to draw on.) And as adulthood hurtled at him—graduation, a failed enlistment, and his return to help run New Directions–his adjustment to his scaled-back expectations was one of the most consistent and moving story lines in the series.
Glee, preparing to go into production for season 5, will obviously have to adjust to the loss of its star and one of its most important characters. But beyond that, without Monteith’s vulnerable, empathetic performance, it will have lost a major voice in its emotional chorus. RIP.