At its best, the show made life — even the messiest parts — something to celebrate. And that essential premise makes the black cloud now hanging over the series all the more haunting.
Authorities in California on Thursday announced that former “Glee” star Naya Rivera, a 33-year-old mother, was missing and presumed drowned after going boating with her 4-year-old son the previous afternoon. Rivera’s disappearance is the third major tragedy to befall the cast of the cheery musical comedy. In 2013, Cory Monteith, the lovable leading man who played guileless quarterback Finn Hudson, died at 31 of an accidental drug-and-alcohol overdose. In 2018, Mark Salling, who played bad-boy Noah “Puck” Puckerman, died by suicide at 35 after pleading guilty to the possession of child pornography.
And now Rivera may be gone, too.
Rivera was best known for her role as Santana Lopez, the cheerleader with a voice like an angel and a tongue that could cut you in two.
But Santana was much more than her broadest strokes. In the Season 1 episode “Sectionals,” the glee club arrives at the big show choir competition, only to learn that its fiercest rivals received an advance copy of its set list. Everyone assumes Santana did it, because she’s a cheerleader whose loyalty to the club was seen as questionable. But it wasn’t her. “And if you tell anyone this, I’ll deny it — but I like being in glee club,” Santana tells her sidekick, Brittany. “It’s the best part of my day, okay? I wasn’t gonna go and mess it up.”
That exchange resonates with the show’s tragic arc: It was once the best part of so many days … but it’s been messed up, hasn’t it? Tragedy now threatens to undermine the show’s happy message while revealing how very much we need it.
Fans, pouncing on the news of Rivera’s presumed death, were quick to speculate that “Glee” might be “cursed.” This may read as a silly, knee-jerk reaction to grief, but the question of how “Glee” will be remembered has taken an improbably dark turn. This show about a ragtag group of teenagers who liked to bust out in song has slipped into the same category as horror movies “Poltergeist” and “Twilight Zone: The Movie” — films haunted by off-screen actor deaths.
The first blow came while the show was still on the air, when Monteith was found dead in a hotel room in his native Canada. The actor had made no secret about his past struggles with addiction. During the waning days of production for the show’s fourth season, Monteith bowed out of filming to check himself into a rehab facility. Finn was written off the show the following season. (In the episode “The Quarterback,” the cast said goodbye to the sensitive jock with an hour-long tribute that never revealed how Finn the character actually died.)
Two years later, gleeks received another gut punch when actor Salling was arrested in Los Angeles on child pornography charges, just months after “Glee” took its final bow.
So what to make of “Glee,” an uplifting show that has become a reference point in heavy headlines? The series gave fans a nice world where discordant high school cliques found harmony. “Glee” fans who revisit that world will now do so with the knowledge that nostalgic show tunes can’t smooth out the hard edges of our world.