Burning Question: I'm a huge fan of "Glee," and broken-hearted about Cory Monteith. What are the show's options post-Finn? — A. Thomas, North Carolina
"Glee" was expected to start shooting its fifth season in Los Angeles in about two weeks, with Monteith's Finn character front and center, along with Lea Michele's Rachel.
Our on-set sources say the "Finchel" romance was to be a major plot point, and both Monteith and Michele (also a couple offscreen) were due to report with other stars to the studio next Sunday to begin prep.
For the moment, with Monteith's sudden death on Saturday, those plans have been paused. "Everyone at the network is completely in shock and devastated. No one is pressuring the cast to go back to work, everyone is just in mourning," a "Glee" insider says. "They certainly aren't going to rush Lea to do anything before she's ready, if at all. Everyone is being very, very sympathetic and understanding especially towards her. Everything is up in the air right now, and they just have no idea what they are going to do, but let everyone grieve for the moment."
In other words, it's too soon to tell what course the show will take. However, if the series stays on schedule, producers will have to make a decision on a new roadmap very quickly.
There is no single way that a popular TV show is supposed to handle such an unexpected tragedy. Instead, TV has a long, varied history when it comes to this sad challenge.
"As far as we can tell, the first show that seemed to make mention of the death of an actor and his character was 'Bonanza,'" says Barry Monush, a researcher at the Paley Center for Media. Dan Blocker, who played the beloved Hoss character, died suddenly in 1972, and "they wrote in passing mention of his loss."
In 1977, comedian and actor Freddie Prinze committed suicide shortly after taping the the 18th episode of "Chico and the Man." Producers considered canceling the show or replacing Prinze, but eventually settled on a different course, introducing a child character named Raul instead.
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"The suicide of Prinze, the fact that he took his own life, may have partly been the reason they had trouble dealing with his death on the show," Monush tells me. "So they had his character moving away to open his own business with his father."
The show lasted for an additional season, for a total of four.
The wildly popular sitcom "Cheers" ran fro 1982 to 1993, despite the loss of key supporting actor Nicholas "Coach" Colasanto near the end of third-season production. Showrunners first re-wrote scripts to explain that Coach was "away," but in the fourth season, they tackled the loss head-on with an episode about Coach's death.
"In the final episode, a character straightens a picture of him," notes Ron Simon, curator for television and radio at the Paley Center.
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We've also seen more recent losses; the death of Phil Hartman spurred a day-long halt in rehearsals for "The Simpsons," while the creators of his other sitcom, "News Radio," killed off his character with a heart attack at the top of season five.
The death of Tony Soprano's mother, Livia, was written into the show after the loss of the actress who played her, Nancy Marchand. Ditto with John Ritter, who died suddenly from a condition stemming from a heart defect; Ritter's character on "8 Simple Rules," Paul Hennessy, was said to have died after collapsing in a grocery store. He was replaced with a newly created character played by David Spade. Unlike "The Sopranos," which didn't miss a beat, "8 Simple Rules" only lasted one season post-Ritter.
The latest example: TNT's "Dallas" reboot, which lost star Larry Hagman last year. The funeral for his J.R. Ewing turned out to be one of the show's top-rated episodes, and the show is due back in early 2014.
As for what might happen on "Glee," the path for the producers will likely include some direct way of addressing Monteith's loss.
"It would seem very strange to make no mention of it whatsoever," Monush says. "I would imagine they would have to deal with it in some way or another, with Finn either dying or going away."
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