July 17, 2013 at 5:02 AM ET
The sudden death of “Glee” star Cory Monteith has placed the musical drama into a rare category of television shows: one that has to cope with the real-life death of a major character.
“Dallas” star Larry Hagman died in November of complications from his battle with cancer during filming for the second season of TNT’s reboot of the classic. The show responded by killing off his character, J.R. Ewing, and taped an emotional funeral scene that aired in March.
Another notable death was that of John Ritter, who died suddenly from an aortic dissection in 2003. Ritter was the lead actor on “8 Simple Rules" when he passed away. After a month-long hiatus, the sitcom came back with a one-hour tribute to the character, who died after collapsing in a grocery store while getting milk.
What sets Fox's “Glee” apart from other shows before it is that Monteith’s final episode allows for a plausible story line about why his character, lovable jock Finn Hudson, may not appear again in his hometown of Lima, Ohio, when "Glee" kicks off season five this fall.
Monteith’s final episode, which aired April 18, focused on Finn and Puck partying like typical college students at the University of Lima. At one point, Finn said, “I have the rest of my life to be a grown-up and for now, it’s OK to have fun.”
The episode ended with a repentant Finn taking Matthew Morrison’s Mr. Schuester up on his offer to help coach McKinley High’s glee club for college credit. This means the show’s producers have an opportunity to explain why that won’t happen when the show returns on Sept. 19. Much like the powerful anti-driving-while-texting episode where Quinn (Dianna Agron) almost died, the show has an opportunity to explore the hazards of drugs and alcohol.
The coroner’s preliminary findings, released on Tuesday, cited Monteith’s cause of death as “a mixed drug toxicity, involving heroin and alcohol.” According to the National Institutes of Heath, an estimated 1,825 college students die in alcohol-related deaths each year.
Fans are also hoping the Fox drama takes this opportunity to spread an important message.
"I really do hope 'Glee' decides to address (this) on the show," Alicia McCullough wrote on NBCNews.com's Facebook page. "Many teenagers can learn from this tragedy, and I know he'd want that."
There has been no word from the producers of "Glee" about exact plans for handling Monteith's death. Neither "Glee" creator Ryan Murphy nor Fox has responded to requests for comment.
One thing is for sure: “Glee” has never shied away from controversy or ripped-from-the-headlines story lines. In the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting in Newtown, Conn., the show devoted a riveting episode to a school shooting that also touched on the issues of bullying and gun control. There was also a recent arc about “catfishing,” which had ties to the Manti Te’o headlines that so gripped fans and non-fans of football. The musical drama has also handled other difficult subjects, including obsessive-compulsive disorder, molestation and even the idea of Britney Spears as a role model.
This coming season, most of the original cast has stepped down -- including Heather Morris, Mark Salling and Amber Riley, among others -- to make way for the new talent as the original cast moves on from high school.
According to a source with close ties to "Glee," Monteith's character was to have a major presence in the show's first episodes of the new season. It’s now uncertain as to how producers will proceed as they grapple with how to do justice to the passing of a beloved colleague.
It’s inconceivable given this tragic loss of a talented young man, that the producers would not take the time to make sure his life was given its due.
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