A death on TV is a tricky thing.
The issue is, of course, that people die on TV constantly. If I were to turn on my television now and start flipping, I could probably find someone in the act of dying, or recently dead, within a few minutes.
It reminds me of the commentary made by Tom Hanks in the movie Splash. The mermaid is crying because someone has died on TV and she doesn’t realize it’s not real. So he explains that it’s just a story and that same actor who just pretended to die will probably die again on some other show next week.
Subsequently, it’s hard to made death on TV really count.
It’s been done before. Probably one of the most famous is when the actor who played Mr. Hooper on Sesame Street passed away. Rather than just pretend that it hadn’t happened, a special episode was produced wherein Mr. Hooper had died, and everyone had to explain it to Big Bird.
I don’t recall seeing it. I was probably a little too old to be watching Sesame Street at the time, since I was in the first grade by then. But it’s one of those cultural events that reverberates. People remember seeing it, both kids and adults, and I expect that it still sticks with some people.
Back in 1998, I remember very well hearing that Phil Hartman had been shot and killed, leaving behind not one character, but three or four, if you count all the people he played on The Simpsons.
Of the shows Phil was on, the only memorial I really recall was on Newsradio, where they tried very hard to send his character off in a fitting manner. Obviously, I never knew Phil personally, but it was clear that everyone on the screen cared about him, missed him, and getting through that episode was tough for them.
Which brings me around to Finn.
I felt, at first, that I wouldn’t have much to say about Finn’s death, but it came at such a strange time for me that I felt I needed to say more. I’m not sure what, but more.
The Finn episode came just one day after a good friend passed away. He wasn’t Finn young, but he was too young, and many of my fondest memories of my friend were (and are) of him singing. So I was a little afraid to queue up the DVR. I even offered my wife an out. But she was good with it, so we proceeded.
And ultimately, it was Glee.
Glee trucks in big emotions, but all too often it feels like it’s being created by magicians who don’t understand how their tricks work and can only get them to function half the time.
So when they took a page from Rent and opened with a song, I thought maybe they could nail this one.
And as it turns out… they couldn’t.
Ultimately, I think the best thing they could have done was locked everyone in a room for 45 minutes and just let them talk. Put whatever they were feeling into dialogue and pick songs to match. I think that could have been perfect.
Instead, they set up a mystery with Finn’s jacket. And Tina whined about dressing Goth again. And other moments fell with a painful, crushing, unimpressive thud, sometimes because of the painfully on-the-nose dialogue, and sometimes because the actors just didn’t have the range to make their grief feel real.
Which is strange, because it was.
Truthfully, I put that on the writing, and not on the actors, as the episode tried to be all things to all people, and show every possible reaction you can have to a death.
Though sometimes they nailed it.
Finn’s parents? Perfect. Even though their dialogue sometimes slid towards the clumsy, they sold those feelings completely. If they don’t get Emmys just handed to them next year, it’ll be a crying shame. (Literally, now that I think about it.)
But much of the rest of the episode only worked in half-measures and it took me a little while to figure out what flawed the episode so completely.
It was two things.
First, the show flat-out refused to say why Finn was dead, claiming it doesn’t matter.
And you know what? That’s a bald-faced lie, because it does matter. I’ve had friends die from cancer. I’ve had acquaintances die from suicide. I had one friend die from pneumonia, which is absolutely something that should never happen and part of the reason I support the affordable care act so strongly, even with its flaws
I had one family member die in a motorcycle accident that was wholly preventable. A poor choice was made and family member’s hearts were broken because of that choice. That person could be alive today.
And the thing of it is, they tried to show every reaction a person could have to a death, and they attempted to render the death generic that way.
But you know what? That felt false as well. At least one person being interviewed (a cast member) stated that it was hard to act in spots, because they had to pretend they were in denial about the death, and NONE of them were in denial about the death.
And I realize that “acting” is part of TV, but they weren’t just memorializing a fake person, they were also memorializing a real person, and that requires much more honesty.
And, in some ways even more painfully, they took time out to point out that the cast was on a show that could be phenomenally stupid. By talking about Finn singing to the sonogram of a baby that wasn’t his.
I mean… really?
Perhaps it was flat-out desperation to pick that song, as Finn didn’t have a ton of solos. At least, nothing that felt even slightly appropriate. But then, why not sing a Journey song? I mean, I know they’ve done Don’t Stop Believing a LOT on this show, but why not ballad it up? Do something really bold with it?
Does it matter now? Perhaps not. But I spent that hour feeling awkward, feeling the characters being forced into dialogue that didn’t really work, and I rarely felt moved by anything that wasn’t singing or otherwise wordless.
Because that’s where the real grief lay, I felt.
I felt compelled to complete this essay by, of all things, The Vampire Diaries. A character had died (which happens… a LOT on this show) and it was a shock to everyone, and even though the character who was dead appeared in the scene (because she is not actually deceased)? It moved me. Because it showed genuine loss. Because it showed those moments where you kind of hear your lost friend in your head, and hope that they’re happy where they are, and hope that how you are can or does bring them joy.
There’s talk that Finn’s death will continue to reverberate throughout the year, and maybe that’s the case. But I’ve seen Glee abandon story after story over the years, and I suspect that the impact will end up being minor. Rachel will move on emotionally and start a new relationship, and they’ll state that it’s hard for her twice… and then she’ll just move on, because Glee does.
Or perhaps I’m just too cynical.
To want more from Glee at this time is, surely, too much to ask. I get that. It’s a show that has to make it 41 more episodes and then shutter, and it sounds like the showrunners are already tired and unsteady on their feet.
The truth is, if they really want Finn to be remembered fondly, now is the time to double down and make sure the show actually works, not just 50% of the time, but 90 or 100% of the time.
Because if they don’t, the show won’t go into that endless loop of syndication that keep shows like Cheers and MASH alive. And Finn’s legacy will vanish that much faster.
I must say, I don’t envy them.