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'Glee' honors Cory Monteith with the mostly effective 'Quarterback'
Lea Michele and Naya Rivera were the emotional standouts
After two weeks in a Beatles-induced haze, "Glee" simultaneously paid tribute to the all-too-real Cory Monteith and the fictional Finn Hudson on Thursday (October 10) night with an episode titled "The Quarterback."
It's an episode that fans have been dreading, but also anticipating, since Monteith was found dead in a Vancouver hotel room in July at the age of 31. When somebody so young dies, it's impossible to "get closure," but it was important that "Glee" offer fans the opportunity for shared grief with all of the show's stars.
And... Oy. If it's hard to comprehend how a young fanbase deals with the death of a young star, it's even harder to figure out how a cast like the "Glee" cast deals. While there have been periodic rumors of bickering and disfunction involving one actor or another, few workplaces are entirely harmonic at all times and why should "Glee" be any different? But no matter how estranged or how close anybody in that cast is, most of them share a common experience, wherein they went from virtual unknowns to global sensations in just a few months. It's an experience that only the people within that bubble fully comprehend and, this summer, they lost somebody who was there with them from that first moment. Even if Cory Monteith wasn't humble, kind and grounded, it would be a shock and a nearly unhealable wound, but by all accounts [and in my limited, but pleasant, experiences with him] he was.
Watching "The Quarterback" was witnessing an uncomfortable piece of communal grieving. For obvious reasons, we put a premium on Lea Michele's mourning and we wonder how she was able to do what she did in this episode. Michele is a pro and she's said all of the right things about this episode, as have all of the stars and writers, but the public face that anybody puts on a situation like this doesn't really tell us anything. I watched and listened to Michele's "Make You Feel My Love" and it hurt, because she wasn't acting. Nobody in "The Quarterback" was acting. We've seen the "Glee" cast act and many of them are very good, but we've seen all of them do heightened emotion before and this looked different. Or maybe I'm just projecting. Maybe we're all just projecting. Maybe the "Glee" cast grieved in their own way in July and for this episode, they were professionals, keeping their emotions in check and committing only to their finest acting on behalf of their fallen comrade. I don't know. You don't know either. None of us know. I watched the episode and in moments I felt it was a cruel thing to do to the cast. And then in moments I felt like it had to be cathartic. But I don't know. And you don't know either.
[More after the break…]
I'm not the right person to be handling a write-up on this "Glee" episode anyway. Yes, I watched for more than three seasons, but I quit last fall and felt no real regret. I don't know where all of the characters even are at this point. Some are in New York. But some are elsewhere, so I don't know who returned to this episode after a long absence or who has been floating around the fringes for a while. I don't know how the principal came to be a janitor or how Sue came to be principal and I don't know where the show left anybody's relationship with Finn, pretty much from "The Break-Up" on.
But that's not really why I'm probably not the right person to handle this recap.
I am, by nature, critical and cynical and this is an episode that defies examination in the way that I usually tend to look at TV and movies.
It was earnest.
It was sincere.
It was painful.
And I don't doubt the honorable intentions of any of the people involved. [And if you've read my "American Horror Story: Coven" review, you know that's not always my default setting with some of the creative forces involved.]
And for the most part, I think the "Glee" team did very well by Monteith and by Finn. This isn't an easy thing for a show to do, whether you're looking at how "NewsRadio" handled the death of Phil Hartman/Bill or how "8 Simple Rules" handled the death of John Ritter/Paul. It's hard for a show to stop the thing it usually does to mourn, even harder when the thing that the show normally does happens to be comedy.
"Glee," to its credit and convenience, didn't need to stop what it does.
"The Quarterback" worked as well as it did because, short any references at all to Regions/States/Nationals, what happened in this episode is what happens on most episodes. The structural conceit of "Glee" has always been that every week, Will Schuester walked into the glee club room, put a theme on the board and allowed his charges to sing songs around that theme. When Will walked into the room and wrote "Finn" on the board, it was simultaneously heartbreaking and utterly appropriate. The glee club assignments have often been frivolous and stupid, but they've also been serious, though never anywhere near this season. Still, it's possible that no show that has had to deal with this kind of awful thing has ever been better equipped to deal with this awful thing within the show itself.
And writers and series creators Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan were determined to keep tone and the characters somewhat in line with what has been established (which was really easy, because the characters and tone on "Glee" have always been variable or inconsistent, depending on your degree of charity.
The episode announced almost immediately that it about certain things and not others. After a group rendition of "Seasons of Love" on a simply lit stage, we picked up with Chris Colfer's Kurt packing to return to Ohio for a Finn memorial three weeks after the character's funeral. In the episode's most powerful non-musical scene, we experienced the rawness of immediate grief through Finn's mother (the marvelous Romy Rosemont) and step-father (the always excellent Mike O'Malley), but when it comes to any details at all, Kurt basically set the ground rules immediately.
"Everybody wants to talk about how he died, but who cares?"
It's hard to imagine any circumstance under which "Glee" would ever give any more details than that into Finn Hudson's death.
The episode card said "Farewell to Finn" and it was about celebrating Finn Hudson, but the suggested Twitter hashtag was #RememberingCory a conflation of role and actor that was unavoidable, especially given the number of quotes from "Glee" personnel who talked about how Cory played the quarterback on the show and was also the quarterback of the cast.
And there were great moments aplenty.
Amber Riley stole the spotlight in the opening from "Rent" and Mercedes' rendition of "I'll Stand By You was, vocally, a show-stopper.
While nobody will ever accuse Mark Salling of being in Riley's league as a pure singer, Puck's decision to sing The Boss' "No Surrender" was a much more character-organic choice and, as a result, I found it more powerful, because I found myself listening to the lyrics and thinking about why Puck would pick them for his tribute to Finn.
Naya Rivera also isn't the cast's best singer, but she's proven her acting value time after time. Santana singing "If I Die Young," with the lyric about "The sharp knife of a short life" hit me pretty hard, especially when she was unable to continue.
More, including my reservations, on Page 2...