Correction: An earlier version of this review attributed the song "Make You Feel My Love" to Adele, who covered it in 2008. The song was written and performed by Bob Dylan in 1997. The review has been updated to attribute the song to Dylan.
Fox’s musical high-school comedy, “Glee,” said goodbye Thursday night to Finn Hudson, the sensitive star quarterback-turned-pop song crooner played by the late actor Cory Monteith, in a one-hour tribute episode that brought out some of what’s still good about the show and a lot of what’s become stale about it.
It’s no secret that “Glee’s” better days are increasingly behind it. In expressing their mournfulness about losing Monteith, who died in July from a heroin and alcohol overdose at age 31, the actors playing the characters demonstrated far less confidence and “Glee”-fullness than they did when the show debuted five seasons ago, in 2009. Sorrow is the last reason any of them signed up or stuck around for this gig.
The episode was written by “Glee” creators Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan, and it was disappointing to see them set aside one of “Glee’s” lasting attributes — cold honesty — as it awkwardly and even sanguinely avoided revealing how Monteith’s character died. Did Finn, like the actor who played him, have a drug problem? Was it a car crash? Did he kill himself? Aneurysm, heart attack, infection, old football injury, what?
“That doesn’t matter,” said Kurt (Chris Colfer) in the episode’s opening.
Well, of course it does, if this is still a television show and not just an exercise in demonstrative grief-through-song. It came across as a bizarre absence of basic plot in a show that built its reputation on deftly locating comedy in the most uncomfortable personal details.
Erasing Finn seemed to be the ultimate goal: no clips of Monteith’s character from past episodes, just vague memories and broad strokes. That undermined the episode’s strongest scenes, including one in which Finn’s mother, Carole (Romy Rosemont), broke down in tears while packing up her son’s bedroom. It also left a hollow spot in the final minute when Will Schuester, the glee-club sponsor played by Matthew Morrison, sobbed into Finn’s varsity letter jacket.
On the plus side, “Glee” was mindful about its mission as a comedy first, where treacle still takes a back seat or gets slapped down. As one “gleek” fretted about wearing too much black, guidance counselor Emma Pillsbury (Jayma Mays) reached into her desk for copies of grief brochures titled “It’s Not About Me” and “Wait, Am I Being Callous?”
And as Mr. Schuester tried to figure out the best way for McKinley High School to honor Finn (who graduated more than a season ago, to become one of those alums who hangs around too much), it was up to Jane Lynch’s reliably cruel Sue Sylvester to carry on “Glee’s” core mission of snark: Students who wish to remember Finn can visit the memorial tree planted next to “the shrubs where I caught Finn and Quinn Fabray fondling each other’s breasts,” she said. More important, it’s Sue who warned the gleeks to not make “a self-serving spectacle of our own sadness.”
Which is precisely what we expect that the attention hogs of “Glee” were made to do — sing their hearts out while brimming with manufactured emotions. While the cynics among us strapped in for a long hour of weepy power-pop arias (Mr. Schuester encouraged each of the gleeks to sing a solo about Finn), “Glee” instead briefly reaffirmed its sense of Top 40 surprise and free-ranging taste. Song choices included James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain”; the Pretenders’ “I’ll Stand by You”; Bruce Springsteen’s “No Surrender”; and, once Lea Michele’s Rachel made her dramatic last-minute entrance into the halls of McKinley High, “Make You Feel My Love” a Bob Dylan song likely known to most “Glee” watchers via Adele’s 2008 recording.
The overall effect of “Glee’s” farewell to Finn was indeed a sense of finality, particularly as it relates to the fleetingness of fame.
Last month, Monteith was one of five television personalities mourned in special segments during the Emmy Awards show alongside people with longer careers who had recently died (James Gandolfini, Jean Stapleton, Jonathan Winters and producer Gary David Goldberg), leading to some unseemly criticism across a generation gap about whether Monteith’s death should have ranked with those or been simply noted in the all-purpose “In Memoriam” reel. To complain about that is to ignore proximity, demographics and timeliness, but it also hints at an uncomfortable truth: Who will remember Monteith five or 20 years from now?
On “Glee,” Finn Hudson represented that which was once mostly a frustrating fantasy of drama teachers: the football jock who not only can carry a tune, but who also finds time to join an arts endeavor like the glee club or a school musical.
He auditions — and shines — and eventually repairs the dings to his jock popularity and masculinity. He has the best of all that high school has to offer. In Season 1, Finn fell in love with the glee club’s unlovably self-absorbed diva, leaving behind his conniving cheerleader girlfriend, Quinn (Dianna Agron), a pregnant abstinence-pledger who tried to trick him into believing the baby was his.
There used to be a long-standing and unfortunate tendency that the boys who most wanted to sing and dance onstage in high school often resembled Colfer’s Kurt — openly or secretly gay, and always cast in the chorus by a fussy director who sought theatrical verisimilitude in leading men. High school boys of all persuasions have always struggled to be leading men.
But “Glee” is part of an era in which there’s room for everybody now, where the fantasy has inched closer toward reality and idealism at the same time, with far less judgment and far fewer hang-ups about labels and types. “Glee” broke barriers about gender, race, physical ability and even body type vis-a-vis the stage. As “Glee” caught on, it played up Monteith’s (and thereby Finn’s) gawkiness and insecurities just as much as it played down Kurt’s. The real contribution here wasn’t Finn’s Journey mash-ups and his heartfelt squinting through a love ballad. It was the idea that anyone and everyone should get a chance to shine, even the popular football player.