What Price Glee?

Discovery+ documentary about “cursed” TV show should be salacious but is surprisingly vague

Though available on streaming, like most Discovery+ offerings, the target audience for the Price of Glee, a documentary series that came out this week, will be cable television watchers–remember television, before we had streaming? I jest, but it’s a bigger market than most people tend to realize. There’s a reason why Discovery bought out HBO and not the other way around. Anyway, Glee is in an odd place in the current streaming wars. Produced by 20th Century Fox, at Paramount Studios, now owned by Disney, the Glee phenomenon of the early teens would seem to be obvious fodder for the ongoing nostalgia tour that is American pop culture. Instead, Discovery has delegated Glee to a fairly functional television documentary, mostly because the horrible deaths of three core cast members have made it a difficult property to feel nostalgic about.

Don’t be fooled by the deliberately provocative phrasing of the latter part of that sentence. The Price of Glee really is mostly just a standard doc, for better or worse. The people interviewed, industry professionals, family members, and (mostly minor cast and crew) of Glee obviously have a very positive view of the show they worked on, as do the people who made The Price of Glee, who clearly go out of their way to avoid being too hostile to a TV show that they clearly loved. Unfortunately this aura of positivity comes at the expense of almost anything that you could consider a clear point. The Price of Glee is just a show about a show that was a lot of fun, until all those poor people died.

Whether Glee actually caused any of those people to die is very ambiguous, and creates a very mixed presentation since The Price of Glee clearly communicates that Glee was a big deal in broader pop culture yet refuses to discusses the deaths of the cast members in anything but the most individualistic terms. Take Cory Monteith, the core focus of the first two episodes. He was a handsome, cool-looking Canadian who was a natural for the quarterback aesthetic of his character, a high school jock who joins the glee club at a high school. Back in Canada he did drugs. Tried to get clean. Mostly succeeded. But the drugs in Los Angeles were too irresistible. So he relapsed, despite being a big star in the hit ensemble show Glee. One of his co-stars might have been a bad influence. They can’t name names, for legal reasons.

I’m not just being glib here, that’s really about as far as The Price of Glee gets into details about what happened to Cory Monteith. There’s barely enough content there for a paragraph, and I’m still not sure thinking back how The Price of Glee manages to make two whole episodes about the guy without actually saying anything. The main standout interviews are with this guy he had as a roommate back in Los Angeles and yeah, it’s relevant. But the story begins and ends with: no one thought Glee would be this big hit, and then it was a big hit, and everyone was working long hours because the demand for more Glee content was so huge and they were doing live shows.

 The Price of Glee is just as frustratingly vague about the show’s premise, let alone its popularity, save for that it stems from a high school glee club. It’s not until the third episode finally starts discussing Mark Sulling, the second death, that it gives us a clearly-described plot detail. Namely, that there was a teen pregnancy in the first season, that his character was the boy responsible, and that Mark Sulling was kind of like his character in that both were involved with child pornography.

At this point, I finally understood why the first two episodes had such a relentless focus on Cory Monteith. Of the three deaths, his is the most tragic and unambiguously sympathetic. No one accused Cory Monteith of producing child pornography. Well, credibly at least. Probably. One interview about how all the cast members of Glee were hooking up with each other, and looked at new hires like they were fresh meat, is a bit alarming in this context. As was the mention that the third death, Naya Rivera, married a Glee co-star, and eventually died by a probably accidental drowning in 2020 long after the show ended.

All of this sounds like interesting material for a documentary. Yet The Price of Glee, in trying to respect the departed by avoiding speculation, fails to even so much as contextualize these events. So it’s a bit incredible to me that two core cast members on one of the biggest American television shows of the teens kill themselves, and a third enters into an abusive relationship–yet the documentary consistently treats The Glee Curse as if it were a wacky superstition, not something that you can or should connect to the Hollywood culture of the time. And this, I think, really cuts at the core of why The Price of Glee is such a weirdly nonconfrontational documentary when there’s so much to talk about. Discovery Warner Brothers is in no position to throw stones at its competitors from the glass house that is the ongoing Ezra Miller scandal.

The Price of Glee could have at least been interesting if it had decided to just take a position on something, anything, instead of focusing so much on unsubstantial interviews. One of the most riveting ones is actually this crime-scene expert who walks through why he thinks Naya Rivera died in an accident. Really, all three of the leads of The Price of Glee are compelling–which just makes it that much more weird how Cory Monteith gets two episodes to himself while Mark Sulling and Naya Rivera  share the third one. Really, questionable editing is the least of the Price of Glee’s problems. But it does stick out as the one that’s the most difficult to defend aesthetically, regardless of your opinion on Glee drama elsewhere.

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William Schwartz

William Schwartz is a reporter and film critic based in Seoul, South Korea. He writes primarily for HanCinema, the world's largest and most popular English language database for South Korean television dramas and films.

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