‘Glee’s’ Farewell to Cory Monteith: A Different Tribute for a Different Sort of Teen Idol

Any adult who still tunes into Glee, be it on a regular or sporadic basis, is more than likely to be quite familiar with the Big Mourning Songs of Broadway™ past and present. Particularly popular in this canon is Rent‘s “Seasons of Love (Reprise).” Filled with heart-wrenching chords, miasmas and all the other trappings of sad showtunes, the song is masterfully designed to generate an overwhelming sense of melancholy and hope all at once.

With this in mind, it’s no surprise that last night’s Cory Monteith tribute episode kicked off with a solemn rendition of the song. As the final chord is held, an enormous looming image of Montheith as high school quarterback Finn Hudson emerges, prompting my viewing companion to remark, “Did it have to be so severe? If it were me I would have fainted right then.” And in fact, for the remaining hour it damn well looks like each and every one of the show’s players is on the verge of doing just that. It is that intense rawness — the obvious trauma and visible distress — that makes this memorial so different from so many others in pop culture. Monteith’s mode of death may be something we’ve all seen before, but the circumstances that turned that death into a sort of cultural zeitgeist contain many subtle yet crucial differences.

Yesterday afternoon, several hours prior to the episode’s airing, a trio of high-school girls gathered with me to discuss the evening’s event. Tori, Hope, and Sierra are high-school freshmen in New York City (full disclosure: one of the three young ladies is my kid sister), and all are fans of Glee to varying degrees. As we sat down, Hope, a self-proclaimed “Gleek,” glanced at her phone, displaying a Cory Monteith-collage background and a Monteith-and-Lea-Michele phone cover in the process — and there it was, the new face of digital iconography and fandom. For girls like Hope, fandom isn’t necessarily all-consuming so much as subtly woven in to their lives, making it more intrinsic to their everyday experiences than the fan-club, Tiger Beat-style adoration of generations past.

As I spoke with the girls, what struck me most wasn’t their devotion to their favorite TV icon but their unflagging empathy for troubled stars and touching thoughtfulness for the people closest to him. Asked about her feelings going into the memorial episode, Tori matter-of-factly pronounced, “I feel like the cast and Lea, they probably need it, because Glee was sort of like a second life to them, and they lost their best friend in real life, and so they need the closure of now losing their best friend in the TV show they’ve been a part of for so long.” The rest of the girls echoed her thoughts. So, how widespread was this sentiment? And, for the fans, would watching the show be more about comforting themselves or hoping that their role models found closure?

The first spoken line of the episode came in voice-over form from Chris Colfer’s character, Kurt Hummel, Finn’s stepbrother. It was made readily apparent that Kurt would be the audience stand-in for the evening. As he set the scene for his trip back home to Lima, Ohio, I heard strong echoes of what the girls had said earlier. Both the show and the girls made a point of focusing on how Finn/Cory lived and the lives he touched, rather than dwelling on the tragic way he died. For the legions of fans who loved Cory Monteith, he may have succumbed to an “ordinary” young-Hollywood death, but as they tell it, his role-model qualities mean he’ll be remembered as a positive influence.

I asked the girls what made them feel close to Monteith, and they had this to say:

Hope: Everything — the way he acts, how he acts on television shows — he just sets a good example for everybody. I mean, we know he had problems, but then again, he tried to fight them off, and he did for a couple of years, but he had a relapse, but it’s OK to mess up sometimes.

Sierra: I’m agreeing with her because he was a very relatable character on TV and off TV. He’s a very good role model for people, because he shows people that it’s OK to be different, even though he wasn’t very different.

Tori: I liked his character in the show because he started off as the jock living in a conservative little town, and then he ended up getting a gay stepbrother and he was in glee club and he reached out to everything and it was cool, his character.

Over and over again, last night’s show referenced Finn/Cory’s ability to reach out to everyone. One character reiterated how the girls felt: “He was the first cool kid to be nice to any of us.” And therein lies the appeal of Cory Monteith. He wasn’t beloved by legions of teens because he was a sex symbol or ethereal or impossibly unapproachable; he was beloved because his brand of kindness and acceptance fit so seamlessly into what teenagers yearn for in their day-to-day lives.

Unlike, say, River Phoenix or Heath Ledger — neither of who were seen on TV week after week prior to their deaths — or any number of young, iconic actors who passed at the height of their powers, Monteith was an Everyman in the mold of someone like John Ritter. The tears and improvisational feeling of last night’s goodbye are far more common in mourning much older actors who had spent decades giving themselves fully to the TV-watching community that supported them for long stretches of their careers. In a short period of time, Cory Monteith managed to cultivate a sense of deep emotional entrenchment with his fans, even as he maintained active teen-idol status. Put frankly, last night’s teary and all-too-real goodbye probably couldn’t have happened for just any teen star. Monteith simply engendered that kind of response in people. Here’s hoping that fans and cast alike got the closure they so badly wanted.