By Erin Strecker
Updated July 15, 2013 at 07:26 PM EDT
Credit: Adam Rose/Fox

It’s just awful. That was my first thought when I heard the news that Glee star Cory Monteith passed away Saturday at just 31 years old. It’s particularly awful as a Glee fan who has watched the show hit metaphorical high notes, with Monteith’s goofy charm, boyish good looks, and heartwarming earnestness central to the show’s winning DNA.

Now, on top of a horrific and tragic situation for everyone personally involved, the Glee team has to work out where exactly the show goes from here. Glee is currently slated to return in September (no word yet on whether that date will hold). Although it’s not likely anyone’s first priority just yet, the writers have two difficult tasks lying ahead of them: 1) Deciding what to do about Finn, and 2) Devising a way to continue what is supposed be a goofy, over-the-top musical comedy in the wake of a tragedy.

As a fan who has spent the past four years watching, dissecting, and singing along to the show, here’s what I personally want to see going forward, with the important caveat that I hope, more than anything else, all cast members involved want to continue. If Monteith’s real-life girlfriend, Lea Michele — or anyone else — decides they need to be off the show for a bit, as a fan, I hope they are given that option.

Short-term: One sad, somewhat morbid solution would be to write in Finn’s death much like 8 Simple Rules did with John Ritter’s character when he passed away suddenly in 2003. To have the character simply “go become a teacher” somewhere is too fake and fans won’t accept it. Also, Rachel and Finn’s romance was set up to be an endgame, and to simply brush all that off (with Finn obviously never returning) would feel like a betrayal to the characters.

It’s going to be rough, but one way to go is to have Finn die in some kind of accident. It’s unclear how Monteith died, but he’d struggled with substance abuse issues in the past, and I’d hate to see something like that trotted out as the Lesson of the Week. It would be a little too on-the-nose for a show that already has a propensity to blur the line between fiction and reality (with many of the cast members dating in real life, or the fact that the character of Rachel seems to be slowly morphing into 2006-era Lea Michele). I also want the program to be respectful to Michele: As a viewer, I don’t want to see, under any circumstances, Rachel crying over a casket or receiving a horrific phone call that she must have also received in real life. I’m cringing just thinking about having to watch any part of that nightmare.

Instead, the death should happen offscreen, maybe even before the show returns. When the show does pick back up, there could be an episode where the original eight gather in their beloved choir room and share some memories of Finn, leading into some kind of powerful group number. It’ll be depressing as all get-out, but there is an opportunity for catharsis here. Proceeds from the song could go to a cause Monteith supported. That way the cast, and if they so choose, the fans, can feel like they’re publicly honoring him.

Long-term: Before the fifth season has even begun, the show has already been renewed for a sixth, as well. So looking further out on the horizon, the show might consider giving itself a fresh start by moving most of the plots permanently to New York and getting away from all memories of Finn that will be dug up every time any scene is shown in the choir room. Glee can do some kind of flash-forward (Bonus: Age up the characters a bit), and after a quick scene or two dealing with the immediacy of Finn’s death, pick up the show a year later. Characters — with actors who are onboard with continuing — can be in New York with various post-high school plans, and they’ll all be in situations that don’t immediately call Finn to mind every time they sing.

Jumping forward a year allows a path out of the no-win situation where every conversation features characters reminiscing about the death of a friend, acted out by two people actually dealing with the death of a friend. As in real life, the characters will still talk about Finn (the show should allow that to happen!), but a year out, they can have other things going on in their lives as well.

Glee has often been touted as a groundbreaking show. While no one wanted things to play out this way, Monteith’s death gives the program an opportunity to be truly groundbreaking: The chance to move past an off-screen tragedy and creatively focus on a future with new stories and possibilities, hopefully reaching new dramatic heights in the process. It speaks volumes about Monteith’s role in the ensemble that the show will be so impacted by one man’s absence, but Glee has always been about overcoming obstacles as a group, and this will likely be no exception.

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