Ryan Murphy’s Glee was an inexplicable phenomenon in its early years. A darkly comedic musical series set in a high school glee club didn’t sound like it would pull nearly 10 million viewers an episode, but the show was a runaway success for Fox from the start.
In the decade since it debuted, however, Glee has had a tumultuous public image. The show’s quality burnt out fast, trying to keep up with what was popular on the radio as well as what the fans wanted from the series and its characters. On set, drama was bubbling up and hard to mask.
Then, there was a string of deaths — tragic, sudden and horrific — that would make people believe that a “Glee curse” exists. Cory Monteith, the show’s previously unknown lead who played sweet quarterback Finn, was found dead at age 31, in between the show’s fourth and fifth seasons. Mark Salling, who played less sweet quarterback Puck, was accused of both sexual battery and later possessing child pornography. He would die of suicide in 2018. Naya Rivera, who stole scenes as snarky cheerleader Santana, passed away from an accidental drowning in California’s Lake Piru while on a trip with her son.
Interest in unpacking the mystery of what the hell was going on with the cast of this show has made the series more popular now than when it went off the air in 2015.
Enter The Price of Glee, a three-part documentary from ID and Discovery+ premiering Jan. 16. Unfortunately for Gleeks who yearn to know the truth about all the romances and fights that occurred on set during the show’s heyday, this isn’t the tea party old fans have long been hoping for. Instead, it’s a true crime-poisoned take focusing on the sudden deaths of Monteith, Rivera and Salling. In trying to understand the inexplicable, the docuseries seeks and fails to find answers, instead passively placing blame on the show and its cast for those losses.
The Price of Glee has a conspiracy-brained approach to the storytelling, largely due to the fact that the actual cast refused to participate and even denounced the docuseries upon its announcement. The series relies on the actors’ stand-ins, backup dancers, various crew members, publicists and even a supporting actor on Big Time Rush to piece together the story, with many hawking half-baked theories on what went wrong.
Instead of being a truly juicy tell-all with behind-the-scenes gossip, the doc exploits both the news-making and behind-the-scenes deaths of the cast and crew. Though much of the information shared by the talking heads is speculative, here is some of what we learned from those involved in this series.
The cast’s work schedules were grueling.
Normally, casts of hit television series get a few months off between filming seasons no matter how big the show gets. Glee was not structured like a normal show: the cast’s versions of popular songs became hits themselves while the show spurred an insatiable online fanbase. As soon as Season One wrapped, the cast were sent out on the Glee Live! Tour, which they embarked on in 21 cities globally the following year as well. For the first year and a half of making the series, the cast worked on the brand on set and off. Their work days included hours of dance and vocal rehearsal, as well as time in the booth to record the songs for their numbers and, of course, filming the actual scenes.
Every talking head in The Price of Glee takes time to point out how particularly grueling and isolating their schedules were. To add higher stakes, the young, hot cast of actors were becoming tabloid, paparazzi and stan bait. Filming in public became a harrowing ordeal due to hordes of fans and cameras showing up. Monteith even had to move from his Culver City apartment due to a stalker. Eventually, a walled tunnel was built on the studio lot to connect the casts’ trailers directly to set to keep them safe (and yes, some of the talking heads use this walled tunnel for a cheap metaphor on the casts’ loneliness).
A cast member allegedly encouraged Cory Monteith’s relapse.
Monteith was open about his history with substance abuse as a kid. He was caught up in a “bad crowd” and spent his teen years spiraling deeper into drug and alcohol abuse before his mom and friends intervened. He had been sober for several years prior to being cast in Glee, his big break. Though his friends, like roommate Justin Neill, note how much he hated fame, Monteith seemed to be otherwise upholding his sobriety until Season Four of the show. He began showing up unprepared to shoots and then disappeared from most of the season, having entered a rehabilitation facility. On July 13, 2013, he was found dead in a Vancouver hotel room, surrounded by empty champagne bottles and with heroin in his system.
The speculation around Monteith’s death in The Price of Glee is poorly-handled, grasping at empty notions about how and who may have caused him to spiral out instead of dealing with the reality of addiction being an ongoing disease a person grapples with throughout their life. One of the most shocking claims comes from Dugg Kirkpatrick, a hair stylist who led the hair department on Glee. He continued to cut some of the cast members’ hair after he left the show and had cut Monteith’s not long before he passed. According to Kirkpatrick, Monteith was inebriated at the haircut and recounted the story of how he ended up drinking again. Kirkpatrick alleges that another cast member had been at a party with Monteith and told him that it was OK for him to drink if he wanted to. Because he did not witness the actual interaction, Kirkpatrick refuses to name who Monteith claimed had given him permission, only saying that it was someone they loved.
Unfortunately, Kirkpatrick is not the only person in the doc to point fingers. Several people in the doc spend a lot of time pointing out how odd and mismatched Monteith and co-star Lea Michele, who he was dating at the time of his death, were. In turn, they meagerly try to connect real allegations of her poor on-set behavior toward her castmates and extras to Monteith’s sudden relapse.
There were several other deaths within the Glee family.
The tragic and sudden deaths of Monteith and Rivera, as well as Salling’s suicide in the face of child pornography charges, have been well-covered by the media. Many have deemed the show to be “cursed.” The former crew members and stand-ins from the show also point out that there were numerous other sudden deaths of people who worked on the show behind-the-scenes, and many blame the rigorous production schedule and studio pressure for some of those losses. Among the deaths that occurred while the show was still airing: a car fire that killed Mark Watson, who was the stand-in for Matthew Morrison, and assistant director Jim Fuller’s suspected heart failure at age 41. Production assistant Nancy Motes died by suicide, as did an unnamed rigger.
In mentioning these losses, The Price of Glee tees up a final episode focused on Salling and Rivera’s deaths, two extremely different circumstances that have no reason to be tethered together.
Naya Rivera’s family are still looking for answers after her death.
The third and final episode of The Price of Glee focuses on Rivera’s accidental drowning in 2020 while on a boating trip with her son. The episode also touches on Salling’s child pornography charges as well as Melissa Benoist’s revelation that she was a victim of domestic violence, which was later linked to castmate and ex-husband Blake Jenner (the pair joined Glee in Season Four, becoming series regulars in Season Five).
Rivera’s dad George details his daughter’s child-acting career, volatile relationship with Salling and, later, her untimely death. The docuseries features a journalist on a pontoon like the one Rivera was last seen on with an expert offering practical reasons why such a “strong swimmer” like Rivera may not have been able to hoist herself back up on the boat. George hints at still seeking answers, though no one suggests foul play as a cause. Some theories the investigators have suggested were her history of vertigo that worsened underwater as well as a weakened physical state after saving her son in the currents.