You don't need to be a Gleek to know how vital Cory Monteith — who was found dead in his Vancouver hotel room over the weekend — was to the success of "Glee."
At 31, he was that boy next door — though with a certain edge, depth and relatabiltity that made him acutely real in the constellation of characters that Ryan Murphy, Ian Brennan and Brad Falchuk created back in 2009. There was something initially deceptive about his character, although that was quickly resolved: He was the jock with a heart, the great-looking high school kid with a pretty good arm (quarterback) who forsook top dog clique status for love, of Rachel and the Glee club.
It was an unusual path to popularity in high school because it wasn't a path to popularity at all. In fact, it all seemed to come naturally for Finn Hudson who appeared to intuitively understand that life is full of pain and heartache, and that there are more important things than pursuing something as ephemeral as alpha status. It all seemed to come naturally for Monteith too — there may have been a reason for that.
I'm not going to post Finn/Monteith songs — easy to find out there — and instead have just a few interview clips below to support my brief appreciation here. First, is a clip of how he was selected for the cast; it's charming and funny, and listen to what Brennan has to say about him; second is the "Glee" cast interview from "Inside the Actors Studio;" Monteith doesn't get a lot of face time in this, but where he does is telling: He defuses difficult questions about his life and career with humor — always a reasonably good sign that there was a little bit of sorrow avoidance going on.
How many schools did you go to as a kid growing up in Canada, James Lipton asks? "I don't know; do you?" Monteith was the product of a broken home, who drifted from school to school, got into drugs — a subject he doesn't avoid here, and has admitted to his battles with addiction in many interviews since. (Still no official cause of death, by the way.)
He has spoken about being very nearly homeless before he got this gig.
What Murphy wanted to do with Monteith was fairly obvious — add another hue to the constellation of characters he assembled for New Directions — gay, disabled, Asian, black, white... New Directions began as a band of misfits — kids who were rejected by the rest of the McKinley High student body but found kinship here, and with each other.
The club was the place where they were to discover themselves, and in the process make pretty good music, and, as pieces of a remarkable little puzzle, finally fit together. I think Murphy also wanted to reveal them as a small slice of humanity, or a microcosm of an idealized world, where if people came to accept the differences of their peers, they would also come to accept themselves for what they were.
Finn — compassionate, romantic, impulsive — seemed to know his life was a work in progress, but at least he was making progress. (Unclear whether his role would continue into the fifth season; after that blowup with Will Schuester — Matthew Morrison — Finn had been off the show; a bunch of cast members are going next season.)
Early on, Monteith's Hudson was — in one very obvious sense — the proxy for all those other kids in high school who automatically "fit in" because they are good-looking, or athletic or "perfect" but who may be masking tragic lives of their own. In Finn's case, his father had died in the war (Afghanistan, I believe) and he spent an entire life fetichizing the father he never knew.
That was Finn's backstory, and Monteith seemed to come to it so naturally that you began to wonder whether there was something in his own life that mirrored Finn's — and perhaps there was. (He grew up in a single-parent household.) You almost wonder whether the writers of "Glee" sensed that, and created in Finn a conflicted character — someone who chose the club over football, who gravitated naturally, impulsively, to Lea Michele's Rachel Berry (his total opposite in so many ways.) Most of all, they and Monteith created in Finn someone who seemed to sense that life was tragic, and that music could be both an expression of that, and a release.
There was always something just a little bit sweet, sad and soulful in his performance. Finn — and Moneith — helped make "Glee" one of the most important TV series of the last ten years, which is just one more reason why this death is so very very sad.